I officially set foot on Aroma Hill in Callicoon, NY, on Saturday, September 8, 1962, after an eight-hour train ride from Buffalo on the old Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, a passenger service that was rapidly dying even at that early date. I had a lot to adjust to in a short time. I had been released from the hospital just a week or two before, and my parents sold our house just two days before I left, and we moved on Friday to a new homestead in a village south of Buffalo. Despite the chaos, my parents made a kind effort to give me a going away breakfast of favorite donuts amidst all the unopened boxes before we left for the train station and my 9 AM departure. At the station we ran into another student in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie who was also heading to Callicoon. He seemed a little lost, so my mother told his mother that “Tommy will keep an eye on him.” Later, in the train he explained he was a Canisius College grad heading to Callicoon’s PG or post-graduate college studies in Latin and Greek, among other subjects.
I could not know it then, but one of my best friends in the world today had a much more complicated route to Callicoon. John Burke took the train as well, but from his hometown Boston, then switched trains in New York City and arrived in Callicoon; the arrangement meant that he arrived on Friday, not Saturday, and the seminary would not admit him a day early even though the returning student body was already there. Years later he would describe to us spending the night in a Callicoon boarding house along the railroad tracks. I was aghast when I heard about that later in adult life, but just the other day John reflected upon our six years there: “I share some of your thoughts but not your uncertainties about where I was. To me, it was the best of all worlds. I can remember getting letters every week from my father and mother. I wish I had saved some of them. Both my sisters and I were away at the same time. Each letter was typed and special. I did not get many visitors but only remember being home sick once….”
It was hard for me to leave home, though given my family’s move it was difficult to say exactly what and where “home” really was. When I arrived in Callicoon late that first Saturday afternoon, there were two friars with a station wagon at the train station to gather up a quartet of us—several other newbies had boarded the train in Binghamton, NY—and drive us up Aroma Hill to the dorm building where we could find our delivered trunks. My new classmate John’s trunk did not arrive for about three weeks. The first weekend was the predictable orientation to rules and procedures, include the reality that I would not be home again until Christmas nor would I have a hot breakfast for six years in the seminary, until virtually my final week in 1968.
After the class photos were taken, we received an orientation to the rule book. My takeaways included that illicit smoking was an automatic “C” in conduct, that “particular friendships” were forbidden, that we could not talk to the dozen or so blue-collar Franciscan brothers on the staff, that we were to write our parents and go to confession every week. There were lots of other prescriptions, and in case anyone forgot the orientation, the rule book was read every Friday during lunch as we ate in silence. I was not a hell-raiser at that period of my life, but I could see that one needed to stay on one’s toes to keep the authorities from forming poor impressions. Leaving the seminary carried a stigma then; expulsion from a seminary was light-years worse, at least where I came from. My first disciplinary conundrum came about fast enough: after being told about absence from seminary grounds being cause for immediate dismissal, the assistant prefect of discipline who also served as the school’s baseball coach announced that tryouts for the seminary’s baseball team would be held that afternoon in the town’s municipal stadium, off campus. Was individual permission necessary to go into town, or had we just received blanket permission? I hoofed myself upstairs to the head prefect’s office for a legal consultation. It occurred to me on the way out of his office that I was the only one who consulted.
The predominant demographic identity of St. Joseph Seminary’s 250 students was white middle-class, the majority coming from the dozen or so New Jersey suburban parishes across the river from New York City which were staffed by Franciscan priests. A fair share came from New York City and Long Island. Buffalo had a small contingent due mostly to Timon High School and St. Bonaventure University being staffed by friars, and Boston made its presence known. But we did have members from Florida, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Quebec, as I recall. The entire student body encompassed high school and junior college seminarians as well as college graduates with B.A.’s and veterans for whom the seminary’s college division was an introduction to classical languages [Latin and Greek] and in some cases to college level work in general. I recall two persons of color in my first year, both in advanced courses. My class was entirely white.
After the first week or two I began to sort out what I could expect from the seminary and what I could not. What I can say with certainty after 56 years of reflection and communications is that while demographically and ethnically we bore a basic similarity, each member of the class came to Callicoon in 1962 with unique private reasons for doing so, reasons that none of us significantly understood until later in life. I am receiving mail now from boys on the hill sharing those reasons, the guys who found the seminary a lifeboat and those perhaps who were less enamored. Dr. Wayne-Daniel Berard is a professor of English at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts as well as a chaplain, writer, social justice advocate, and religious philosopher. He graciously passed along to me a segment of his personal memoir summarizing his four high school years at Callicoon with a half-century’s retrospect:
“Let me say simply that the spiritual was as out of place in seminary as it was anywhere else. Ditto the spiritual person. Only, it was worse, as there was no official expectation of the spiritual in the World. But in the Church (or at least its Academy), the worst thing was to actually be what the institution did not even pretend to be. There was no pretense about pretense here, no falling back on “sacred shoulds.” Nobody cared enough to be duplicitous. The Church was about nothing but Itself; the seminary was about nothing. Not God, not Christ, not compassion, not even putting up a good front. “Don’t go thinkin’ you’re somebody,” my father used to tell me. But the seminary was all about being Somebody just by walking through the door. It wasn’t arrogance, actually. Or privilege. There were many there who felt neither, exhibited neither. It was more a sense of “why bother?” Like the children of rich pensioners, who had lost track years before of where their place had come from or for what. Don’t look. Don’t dig deeper. Don’t question it. The Bark of Peter was on cruise control. Take the ride.
“The fact that the Second Vatican Council had occurred not long before seemed to have no bearing at all on this. Oh yes, we had vicious debates over guitar vs organ in the liturgy. The generation gap existed even in the Eternal Church. But what was Really The Case had nothing to do with age. It had nothing to do with anything. Autonomous self-existence, that was who we were and what we served.”
_____________________________________________________Wayne was four years behind me, entering in 1966 and after the reform Council Vatican II. Several changes in seminary living style were installed in his era that were not available to ours, but there are in his words many constants, too. In looking back, I have thought many times how helpful it would have been if there was some common forum—group encounters, something of that sort—to help us constructively explore exactly why we had left our homes and entered “the academy” as Wayne put it, and incidentally to help us process the bumps in the road from homesickness to spiritual emptiness. The Synod in Rome last month devoted much energy to the need for helpful Church communication with youth; in 1962 I could dimly make out that our game plan was exquisitely devised with a self-assurance that more often than not gets the Church into hot water.
On My Mind