I talk regularly with several of my close friends from St. Joe’s, and one question that always comes up—with humor and wonderment—is the precision or lack thereof of the admission standards for acceptance into the seminary formation program. Usually the prompt for this question is the difficulty some of us had with various classmates. There were always beefs about something, but we generally agree there were at least several of our classmates who suffered from personality disorders by today’s reckoning. The mental health community today would say that about 20% of Americans across the board suffered from a definable clinical disorder, so I would feel comfortable using that figure in any seminary of our time—perhaps higher, judging from some autobiographies of former seminarians.
But we have been scratching our heads trying to discern the actual process undertaken in 1961 and 1962 when we signed up. I recall these signature moments:  A letter of intent.  A physical from one’s family MD.  A dental exam and appropriate work.  A letter of recommendation from the pastor.  A photo.  A home visit by one of the two legendary vocation directors, Doc Fink and Dan O’Rourke. I must think our academic records were asked for, but I have no memory of it. There was no preadmission psychological screening. As a sidebar, I was playing both sides of the street, having applied to the Diocese of Buffalo’s “Little Seminary” day school, where very little admission documentation was required, probably little more than admission to any Catholic high school in Western New York. I was accepted in both seminaries on the same day of the winter of 1962. My mother pushed the friars, and I am glad I did take that choice. The Diocese of Buffalo is now the “new Boston” or ground zero of the clerical sex abuse scandal.
Sadly, I lived with the then former rector, Ligouri Muller, for four years after my ordination when it would have been safe for me to ask generally about the admission process and other questions about Callicoon, but we never got around to it. He intimated to me that he did have ambition beyond the hill, but it broke his heart when his Callicoon term was up in 1967 and he was not elected to higher office in the Province. The same Chapter elevated Columban Hollywood to the Rector’s position at Callicoon in my sixth year and brought a wave of younger faculty to St. Joe’s. About a decade later Ligouri told me he lost an election to the provincial council in that 1967 Chapter by one vote— “to a guy seeing a psychiatrist.” This suggests to me that whatever the admissions and retention standards were in our day, psychiatry was not necessarily near the top of the list on Ligouri’s watch in our time.
This is not to say that it was ignored, though. I recall, as a freshman or sophomore, taking what I recognize today as the MMPI or Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory in the Scotus study hall. I remember the guys joking later about its questions of whether “one has dark and tarry bowel movements.” Many years later I had to learn how to administer and score the test, and I took the test at Rollins College in 1986. In that run, I scored high on the schizophrenic scale and I ran to my professor to inquire about it. He replied that this was a symptom of an individual who “thought outside the box.” In the words of the immortal football coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.”
We did have at least one campus visit by a psychiatrist friar, George Flannagan, and each of us had a visit, though I cannot remember any stress involved, nor any interpretation of tests we might have taken. My recollection is that this occurred in my second year, 1963-1964. Somebody about two years ahead of us went into the office to see the psychiatrist, closed the door, whipped out his hanky, and cleaned the doorknob. In May 2020 that would have been considered conscientious behavior.
Another relevant question is how often we were seriously evaluated by the faculty. My guess is that our grades and conduct were scrutinized very closely after first year, and probably after second year, as it is true that some of our classmates came from poorer school systems and some possibly suffered from learning disabilities or ADD issues. After second year the enforced departures were much less frequent. Again, I would imagine that some special scrutiny was done after fourth year, since the next year’s progression was into college level work. And, as a matter of generosity, if the faculty had serious doubts about a student’s long term prospects as a priest, it would be better to let him make a fresh start in an outside college or whatever endeavor he was better suited for.
As the last class to progress from Callicoon to novitiate, I cannot remember any special interviews about our fitness to move on to St. Raphael’s. I believe we went to novitiate as a class sometime in sixth year to acclimate, but nobody took me aside to ask if I was ready to leave Callicoon for North Jersey. I suspect a good number of my classmates may have been asking themselves that question, and likely with some faculty guidance. Going back to faculty meetings and votations, I believe all faculty members had a vote on our staying or leaving. It would make sense that the prefect of discipline [Anthony McGuire or Brennan Connelly] and the academic dean [Myron McCormick] presented a summary before the vote. My gifted classmate David Lingelbach always maintained that the votation was the reason we had to submit photos. He would do a brilliant imitation of Ligouri calling forth “pictures, please.” According to Canon Law of our time in seminary, spiritual directors could neither vote nor comment on a student’s issues. That law may be more nuanced today given the clerical abuse scandals; I need to research that.
There were, of course, some immediate dismissals, de jure in Latin legalese. Two of my classmates got tossed when one smuggled out another’s love letters in his laundry case. [Happily, the second was readmitted into formation years later and was much loved in his ministry before his untimely death.] Two students behind us got tossed for possession of porn, and a college student was immediately dismissed for aggressive behavior. There are probably others I am not aware of.
I have considered several more nebulous admission factors, and the reader may recognize others I have overlooked.
First, despite the popular belief, Church leaders were concerned about a priest shortage even before my class entered Callicoon. Patrick W. Carey’s history, Catholics in America , goes into this issue in considerable detail. Religious orders with large institutional commitments such as colleges, high schools, and missions were already hard pressed as the baby boomers came of age. The pressure to fill seminaries was great.
Second, an institution the size of Callicoon was expensive to run even at capacity. Given the province’s investment, it is possible that admissions officers were willing to take marginal candidates in the “Boys Town” spirit.
Third: Church theology of the time put great stock in the reformative and regenerative power of grace to create diamonds from coal. The daily religious regimen probably helped all of us to become better Christians, and there may have been some thought that a boy would come around in such an atmosphere, particularly if he was referred from a friars’ parish or elementary school
Fourth: For a high school student and his parents, Callicoon was the best bargain in town. The $43/month tuition covered private school caliber academics and room and board. In Washington later, one of my Capuchin Franciscan friends told me that his minor seminary was the only Catholic high school in a radius of 50 miles.
Fifth: I am not certain that the faculty nor its recruiters were entirely trained to recognize the Eriksonian issues of adolescent development or to identify abnormality, or the cultural changes stirring in 1960’s America. In making judgments on the fitness of candidates and seminarians, the faculty’s only data was behavior and academic performance. Doc Fink told me many years later that he felt he lost his touch in assessing candidates in March 1966. Doc, a great raconteur, said “I sat up half the night calling my confreres around the country and they all agreed that there was something different in the air they could not identify.” Doc soon left vocation recruiting and became guardian of the Lafayette novitiate.
Allowing for some campfire expansion, Doc was correct that the times were a’ changin. That some candidates were accepted with unperceived baggage and different values and expectations is understandable. From what I glean from Facebook posts of students behind me, the problems of the later 1960’s may have been more complex than my time, when we only had some thugs and bullies to endure, budding personality disorders.
I can only hope that when I pulled my trunk up the hill for the first time in 1962, nobody looked out a window and said, “Hey, who’s the schizophrenic?”