Celebrating the feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord in my home parish this month brought back memories of my return to the seminary in the winter of 62-63, my first year there, after two weeks home with my family around the Christmas tree. My commute was a little longer than most of my classmates as I had the all-day rail trip from Buffalo to the heart of the Catskills. I can remember, though, the shock of walking into the seminary chapel on my first night back, seeing it decorated with poinsettias and a large nativity scene. The large institutional seminary seemed far removed from the human festivities of life back home. I had forgotten momentarily that our chapel, which seated as many as 300, was also the local Catholic parish church for the village of Callicoon and was tended to by an older friar who lived at the seminary.
I can’t recall if anyone decided not to come back after Christmas, though I could certainly understand the impulse. It would have made more sense to leave after January examinations and transfer into a local high school at the semester break. Everyone, it seems, was back to the Hill from a variety of locations, though geographically there were some rather easy fault lines to fathom. Numerically, the largest cluster of my classmates came from “the Jersey parishes.” The Franciscans staffed a significant number of suburban parishes in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, where my branch of the Order had planted its flag in the 1870’s, German refugees from the onslaught of Bismarck. The term “Jersey Boys” was not yet in our national lingo in early 1963, but I do recall that a new music group called “The Four Seasons” was making a splash during Christmas vacation with a song about big girls not crying.
I can still remember the names of the Jersey towns—Fair Lawn, Little Falls, Pompton Lakes, Clifton, and a few more I have forgotten--stretched along or near the cross-state highway U.S. 46 before it enters metropolitan New York. It is not surprising the best harvest of young seminarians might come from the friars’ most prolific cluster of parochial ministries. The fact that most of my classmates came from the same few counties did not create any social strains that I am aware of. But there were other constituencies to be heard from. Several of my classmates hailed from Queens and Long Island, enough for a potential small but determined bunch of fans for a new baseball team, the New York Metropolitans, which set up shop in the Polo Grounds two years before my class set up shop on the hill.
Small but vocal in identity were the “B” town representatives, i.e., Boston and Buffalo. In truth, I was the only student from Buffalo in my class but there were others spread out in the classes ahead of mine, and in subsequent years there would be “reinforcements,” so to speak. Similarly, I can only recall one true Bostonian in my freshman class, partly because he always used my Rite-Guard and mostly because he is among my closest friends today, and a Café contributor to boot. But the Beantown contingent throughout the school was not insignificant, particularly when our small lake froze enough for hockey.
There were interesting stories of how other classmates joined the seminary; I had classmates from New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, among other sites. But while it was easier to latch on to someone’s place of origin, it is harder today to understand what motivated each of us in 1962 to even think about leaving those varied locales for seminary life. The phrase “to become a Franciscan priest” seems simple enough, but even in my freshman year it was obvious that our personalities, ambitions, and influences were remarkably complex. The fact that there are no minor seminaries today is enough to make me curious as to why the Church—and the significant adults in our lives—thought a minor seminary was a good idea back then. And more to the point, why did any of us in our deepest souls make that choice, to the degree that anyone is capable of significant career choice at age 14?
I am grateful to reader Mark Griffin for pointing me in the direction of Paul Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search (1983). Hendrickson, a writer of some note, was a reporter for the Washington Post when he was encouraged to write his seven-year memoir of minor seminary life by, among others, the Post’s legendary Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame. I am barely into Henderson’s first year of seminary life, but even at this stage of his work he stops to consider why so many young products of Catholic elementary schools entered minor seminaries.
He begins with the religious temperament of the times: the post-World War II years, when a religious revival of sorts was taking place in America. Most of our fathers had fought in World War II, and the work of Catholic priest-chaplains had won admiration in all quarters, including our future parents. But even beyond that, the War had impacted different countries different ways. France, for example, fell into existential hopelessness. Church attendance dropped, and the famous “worker priest” experiment of the 1950’s attempted to win back the loyalty of French blue-collar workers.
The United States, by contrast, was an energized country after the war, and nowhere more so than in the parochial life of the Catholic Church. Hendrickson observes that by 1958, his first year in the seminary, there were 381 minor and major seminaries in this country [though within twenty years there would be 259 less.] The cultivation of youthful vocations was part and parcel of a seemingly bright future for the Church. The two primary agents of recruiting and nurturing future priests, in Hendrickson’s assessment of things, were religious sisters in elementary schools and Catholic mothers. He describes the process of easing into seminary life as “going with the flow” of convincing, cajoling, and encouragement.
I can say that to a point this was true in my own life and probably so in some classmates. A very close friend today from seminary days has two sisters who became religious nuns and an uncle who joined a religious order, but from knowing him for 56 years I don’t think that these circumstances alone do justice to his inner existential choices of remaining in the seminary for ten years, as he did. The men who have corresponded with me through the Café blog or Facebook tell a more complex story, such as a seminary friend who was orphaned at age eight and acknowledges that his life was turned around by two friar priests who became surrogate fathers to him during his five-year stay.
I will continue the thought in future Sunday posts from the Hill, and I welcome conversation here at the Café blog, or at the Facebook page St. Joe’s Reunions. Search on Facebook.
On My Mind