It cannot be understated how much the office of priesthood was respected in the Church in my youth—and even today in most quarters, recent events notwithstanding—such that a respectable number of young men, and particularly the adults who influenced them, believed until the 1960’s that early induction into a minor seminary was a worthy and worthwhile goal. Entering a seminary “to become a priest” was a venture held to be “self-evident” to borrow language from our American forefathers. To the outside world, including the seminary benefactors and my own parents, the focus on ordination was understood as a common attraction and universal organizing principle for those of us who attended.
It did not take much time in a minor seminary to realize that the intentions of our parents and sponsors, let alone of our classmates, were much more of a mixed alloy. I came to the seminary with the expectation that the routine would be challenging, but I entered with the comforting thought that we would all be on the same page about what we were looking for. An immediate surprise was the absence of anything we might call “evangelical.” The guys in that class of 1962-63 were businesslike in their approach to the long-range career goal, spoke little if any to each other about priestly or spiritual topics, and engaged in the multiple devotions probably in much the same fashion as they had in the elementary schools they and I hailed from.
The official reason we were joined together in common purpose so early in life is stated in the documents of the Council of Trent [1545-1563], a council focused upon reform of the priesthood. The absence of appropriate training of priests was considered a major cause of clerical moral indifference at that time, and the establishment of standardized seminaries addressed the twin challenges of competence and devotion. The documents set the age of admission to the seminary at 12 or above; the author Paul Henderson in his Seminary: A Search  cites the Council’s preference for this early age “before the habits of vice take possession of the whole man.” Clearly by 1962 there was not universal agreement about early seminary candidacy, and the statistics from my own ordination class show that only half of us entered at 14; an equal number entered after high school or even later.
So, there were respectable options of age in my time, which makes the subject of early entry more intriguing and complex. Some of my classmates were clearly misplaced. I have wondered over the years what stories brought them to Callicoon. A Capuchin friar in Washington, D.C., a classmate in graduate school, told me that his minor seminary was the only Catholic high school for 100 miles in each direction, and he believed that its attraction for parents was the quality of the education for the minimal cost. Every seminary memoir notes the remarkably low tuition of the various institutions. In my case, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary charged $43/month for tuition, room, and board. Even in 1962 this rate was considered as something of a token against actual costs. (College seminary on the hill was a better bargain, the tuition being $53/month. As those of us from New York State all earned an annual $500 Regents scholarship, I can truthfully report that I earned my first college degree, an A.A. junior college degree in Classical Languages (Latin and Greek) for the princely sum of $60.)
In years of reflection upon some of my obviously troubled and unhappy classmates, I have concluded that some were sent to the seminary by their parents to “straighten out” or “grow up.” It is a mystery to me how some survived the admissions process, and the best source for this information, our legendary vocation recruiter “Doc” Fink, has long passed away. Were he alive today, Doc would probably admit that he took a chance on some applicants, perhaps seeing promise in a sullen eighth grader for some reason or other. There were classmates of mine who would meet today’s criteria as “bullies” and we had to endure them for a year or two before the faculty decided to cut one or more of Doc’s iffy draft picks.
In adult life, and particularly in recent correspondences, I have come to learn that some of my peers from seminary days preferred life on Aroma Hill to living at home. Some had genuine strains with their family dynamics that could easily be covered in the admission phase. My father was at work when Doc paid his “home visit” and the two never met, but my papers got punched, nonetheless. If you told me that some applicants needed a break from home life, I would not fall over in shock.
Others came from distressed areas and poor school districts, or saw the seminary as offering greater educational and cultural opportunities. This was probably more common to college applicants, who brought their affinities for Peter, Paul and Mary or Pete Seeger to the seminary program. One of my classmates came from rural South Carolina, but the quality of education he had received was evidently quite poor. He labored mightily to keep up with the class, but he was dismissed after his first year. At some level I like to think he saw the seminary as an opportunity to better himself and his skills. We never heard from him again.
Another word that comes up frequently about the Callicoon years is “searching.” I use this word with an asterisk, because it is easy for us in our memories to conflate our college years with our early years from the distance of over half a century. I find myself doing that all the time. After all, our Callicoon years spanned the heart of the 1960’s. When I graduated from the high school division in 1966, the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” was virtually our class song.
I can say that while I was a bit more culturally obtuse than a lot of my classmates, I had to do significant mental rearranging to merge my pre-Council vision of the priesthood to the demands of a changing Church and the changes in America. It was a strain to relate to long-time classmates whose searching was taking them to horizons far beyond the swamp at the foot of Aroma Hill. In the last two years of Callicoon life [the junior college years] I lost some close friends who departed for other ventures. It was even more painful because, in my day-to-day preoccupations, I hadn’t picked up the cues.
The guys who attended last September’s reunion and those who post regularly on Facebook feel attachment to their years in Callicoon, if not the institution and its program itself. That is an important distinction. I was not a happy camper living there, but I made some of the best friends in my life during those six years. And, I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the funniest things I ever saw and heard were the end-product of our common life there. But as I say, the “one size fits all” of minor seminary existence began to decay almost immediately after my arrival, and by 1968 it was a chimera.
On My Mind