Chapter 6 of Preordained, Joseph F. Sheley’s study of minor seminaries, is titled “Protective Custody.” That is as good a phrase as any to describe seminary life. The question of “protection” always involves what you are keeping in, and what are you keeping out. Sheley’s analysis of his 1960’s experience is so pertinent to St. Joe’s life that I almost wondered if there was a national template somewhere for the minor seminary model, right down to the doing of house jobs on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. In writing about our free Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the author observes that “some of that precious time was poached by the institution because seminarians were also responsible for a portion of the upkeep of the campus; we were assigned work duties such as building maintenance, and these could occur only when we were not in class, chapel, or dining hall.” [pp. 148-149] I would have gladly cleaned toilets with a toothbrush to escape some of the courses over the years, if only school time could have been poached.
I received several messages from St. Joe’s alumni asking about seminary life vis-à-vis families. Sheley talks about the specific issues of separation from one’s family in Chapter 6, beginning with sad farewells on opening day of the first year. I had the strangest farewell I can imagine: I had been hospitalized for a week just before entering, my parents sold our house on a Thursday, we moved to another town on Friday, and on Saturday at 8 AM I was boarded on the Erie-Lackawanna in Buffalo all by myself. As we were saying goodbyes, there was one other little kid in a black suit, and my mother said to his mother, “Tommy will look out for him on the trip.” It turned out this kid was a graduate of Canisius College. In a way, entering that September 8, 1962, as I did was smart because by the time I got to the campus late that afternoon I was all cried out. That night, the first three guys I hang out with on the Scotus Hall patio are Tom Trots, Don Lee, and a colorful fifth year fellow. [Amazingly, 25 years later, when I am a pastor in Orlando, I get a fax from my bishop warning me that someone by that same fifth year name was passing himself off as a priest in Florida. I faxed back, “Where is he? We’re old friends. I’ll take him to lunch.”]
Sheley pinpoints a true division along us in Callicoon: those whose families were closer, and those who came from a distance. Buffalo was an eight-hour train ride—or about 7 hours of driving; N.Y. 17 had just been converted to an expressway. But Boston was far, too. I need to get my classmate John Burke to describe his first day; he spent the Friday night alone in a boarding house in Callicoon. [We were in Callicoon together in 2018 for a reunion but forgot to look it up.] In my class Allen Asselin arrived from West Palm Beach, Jimmy Longo from Fayetteville, NC, and Davy Bourque from Maine. Mostly I recall a sea of new classmates from the Jersey/New York area. Sheley said that in his seminary there was a monthly “Visiting Sunday” which I think was also our policy. My family came down for the October 1962 visiting day, and assuring themselves that Callicoon met the standards of the Geneva Convention, that was their last visit as a family for my whole six years. They did come for reception and first vows later in my life. But I was the oldest of five, and my little brother was born in my sophomore year; Anthony McGuire threw a crinkled piece of paper on my study hall desk alerting me to his birth in October 1963. It was hard and expensive for the distant families to visit. My parents did come for my high school and college graduation. My very last supper in Callicoon included our parents; it was a standard Callicoon supper. When the tureen of peaches in vanilla pudding came around, my mother grumbled about the food. “A little late for that one, ma,” I muttered under my breath.
I got used to the idea that I would not have visitors when that third Sunday of the month rolled around, although several classmates’ families took me out to lunch, which I still appreciate. I was sometimes envious that I did not have a convenient pipeline for such things as replacement clothes or other needs from home. The first few years I sent my laundry home in those memorable aluminum laundry cases but consider that the speed of your fresh clothes depended upon both the U.S. postal service and the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. There were many close calls. Things improved considerably when I started using the local laundry service. [Laundromats in town became accessible in 1967, I believe.]
Looking back at the process of the boarding experience philosophically and emotionally, I have very mixed feeling about the pain of leaving kith and kin and striking out into a bigger new world that was a major overhaul for me. Callicoon marked the beginning of a slow but steady disaffiliation from my family, in terms of being a meaningful interactor in their lives. Sheley writes that “our families had surrendered us such that we never again could or wanted to recapture the traditional parent-child relationship. We were not going to high school; we were pursuing a holy career. We felt it the very first time we returned home. Our parents would ask for details about our life away, and we would hold back or answer vaguely, as if they could not understand and appreciate our world fully. They seemed to accept this and to trust us out of their sight to an extent not granted to our siblings. When we were with family, we were “on leave,” independent, just passing through.” [[. 163]
In my recent years [I will be seventy-four in two weeks] I have come to appreciate two aspects of a “Callicoon launch.” The first was a bonding with a group of guys in later high school and college who—by being themselves—gradually broadened my outlook on life. With age my interaction with them had a natural formative impact that expanded through novitiate and the major seminary years in Washington. I arrived in Callicoon in 1962 as a parochial kid from a town which itself could be and remains parochial. In the seminary I interacted with some very solid citizens—I hesitate to name names because I know I will miss many, but I think back to as much as a decade of rubbing elbows with David Lingelbach, Joe Michaels, Marty Neilan, Buddy Ward, Matt Seymour, Tony Callahan, Wayne Ward, Billy O’Donnell, John Hayes, Bobby Hudak, Johnny Burke, Dick Fleshren, Gene Joyce, Jim Cosgrove, Mike McCarthy, and a lot of others.
All these guys have done outstanding things with their lives. About forty years later I was a speaker at the National Catholic Educators Association Convention in Philadelphia, I believe, and after my presentation on mental health I grabbed a Starbuck’s, loosened my tie, and wandered into another conference, a high-power presentation to school superintendents and bishops on Catholic school financing by a Wall Street firm executive. I sat down, looked at my program, and realized I was listening to “J.V. Lee” Brennan, my colorful high school neighbor across the corridor in Scotus Hall. We introduced our wives later and bored them to death with nostalgia.
As a group we passed through the 1960’s and the cultural and church revolutions taking place. For me, all of this took place, not in Buffalo, but in the broader atmosphere of the more cosmopolitan setting of an East Coast establishment, including our years in Washington in many cases. I have doubt that my parents—and my broader family—had any idea of the man I was becoming in those settings. In a Zoom meeting with my family a few weeks ago, I mentioned that as a musician in the seminary I belonged to a group that provided the music for the Saturday night Mass at Fort Myer, VA, Arlington National Cemetery. [1969-1974] No one had the slightest memory of that. I don’t remember anyone back home with much curiosity about my life as it unfolded, even after ordination. I guess it was a different world at the time and we were on different tracks, and that has not changed.
The true shock of disengagement came recently when President Trump was elected, the Capital was stormed, the Q-Anon Conspiracy spread, and the Covid and anti-vaxxer upheavals took root. Unfortunately, that still is my old home and much of my family in Buffalo. I am grateful that I had an opportunity in my life to strike out and taste more of what was happening, including these last 44 years in Florida. Callicoon—problematic as it could be—was the ticket out.
Sheley writes: “There was a closeness especially among those boys who persevered into third year and beyond. By that time, the herd had been thinned dramatically—more than half of the boys in my freshman class were gone by junior year…for many seminarians, this meant that the ones that had given me trouble were gone as well. For the most part, the remaining students liked or respected each other or at least appreciated the fact of their shared circumstances.” [p. 165] That was certainly true in my reading of things.
But Sheley notes, too, as close as we were as friends, it was still hard for us to talk about God. [p. 166] That is a loss. I hope to pick up this thread in the book in two weeks, from his chapter, “Survival Skills.”
The Boys of Aroma Hill