By Joe Laufer
Having had four children go through a “typical” college experience, with all its distractions, socialization, adventures and excitement, I wanted to share with them a description of a very “non-typical” college experience that they may find incredible, but which might give them an insight into the unique education I endured and which might explain some things about me and my values.
I don’t mean for the title to sound demeaning — I simply wanted to follow the theme of the popular “… for Dummies” series, namely, “to simplify that which is complicated.” In order to attain my goal to become a Franciscan Priest, I had to spend nine continuous years “in the Seminary.” First off, let me make it perfectly clear that studying for the Franciscan Priesthood is NOT like studying to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher, or an architect — because these professions can be prepared for in a regular college setting. Today, many seminarians spend a lot of their preparation time in a regular college setting — but back when I went through it, it was not so. Seminary life was regulated from morning until night; it was isolated; it was unique — it was twelve months a year, 7 days a week. Had I chosen the secular or diocesan priesthood, a good portion of the life would have resembled “normal” college life. But preparing for the priesthood in a religious order, such as the Franciscans, was very different. Notice that up to this point I have not indicated whether this experience was good or bad — simply that it was!
Here’s how the nine years of Seminary training were organized:
- Minor Seminary: Two years (Freshman and Sophomore years of College). Something like Junior College. Basically Liberal Arts Education. For me: St. Francis Seminary, Staten Island, NY. (1952-1954). The student body consisted of four years of High School and two years of College.
- Novitiate: One year (not equivalent to anything else in the education world). A period of almost total isolation, totally immersed in studying the Rule of St. Francis, experiencing extreme obedience to authority, learning to live in community, working, meditating, praying — something like Boot Camp for Franciscans. For me: Our Lady Queen of Peace Friary, Middleburg, NY (44 miles from Albany; 35 miles from Schenectady, In the beautiful Schoharie Valley in the foothills of the Catskills). (1954-1955)
- Major Seminary: Six years. For me: St. Anthony-on-Hudson, Rensselaer, NY . (1955-1961). The Major Seminary was divided into two parts:
- A. Philosophy – Two years (equivalent to the last two years of a Bachelor of Arts Program: Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology, etc.).
- B. Theology – Four years (equivalent to a Master’s Program concentrating on Theology: Canon Law, Church History, Moral Theology, Biblical Theology, Liturgy, Greek/Hebrew/Latin; Homiletics).
Upon completing the nine years, one was then ordained to the Priesthood: for me, this event took place on May 27, 1961 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, New York.
In reality, upon completion of the seminary courses, no degrees were awarded. Even though our professors were highly qualified, unless you were selected by the “Prefect of Studies” to take a special test administered by the Catholic University of America (through a special academic agreement with the Franciscan Order), you ended up with all this education and no degree. I was fortunate to have been one of the few chosen for the test, and was awarded the STB Degree from CUA (“Bachelor of Sacred Theology”) in 1961. In addition, because I was “pre-selected” to be prepared to teach in one of the Order’s High Schools, I was sent to Summer School at The Catholic University in Washington, DC beginning in 1959 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education, which was awarded in 1965.
That summary gives you an overview of the academic part of seminary life, which isn’t all that radical, except maybe for the Novitiate. The rest is what you would expect a clergyman to learn. But the unique part of the seminary is the regimen — the day-to-day lifestyle at each of the levels. I’m going to try to summarize that “lifestyle” at each of the three seminaries I attended.
St. Francis Seminary, Staten Island, NY (1952-1954)
If you ever cross Staten Island from New Jersey to Brooklyn via the Staten Island Expressway (Interstate 278) to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, midway across the island you’ll see a cut-off to Todt Hill Road (translation: “Death Hill Road”), “the highest coastal point from Maine to Florida.” At the crest of the hill is St. Francis Seminary, an impressive fortress built-in 1928. Its floors are terrazzo — ice-cold to the bare feet in the middle of winter. Its ceilings are high and its walls thick. Standing on a chair and looking out the window of the third floor dormitory you could see the Lower New York Bay. Today, from the same vantage point you’d see the towers of the Verrazano Bridge — which wasn’t begun until 1959 and completed in 1964, a full ten years after I left Staten Island.
Our day was regimented from morning till night. A bell would awaken us; we’d head to the common shower rooms between the dorms to shave, wash up, etc., get dressed and report for morning prayer in the study hall. Then down to the chapel for Mass. After Mass, breakfast in the refectory – together. Then “chores” — everyone had an assignment – it could be to clean the latrine, sweep the north stairs, sweep the hall, etc. Then the morning classes. At noon, common lunch in the refectory. Afternoons varied. Sometimes classes, organized outdoor exercise or labor (raking leaves, leveling the clay tennis courts, washing the Friars’ cars, etc.); clean up; afternoon study hall; “Angelus” in the chapel, then dinner in the refectory. Then followed common recreation in the Rec Room (there was ping-pong, a radio, billiards, card and game tables, or you could just sit around reading or chatting). Then there was evening study hall; night prayers; lights out — and then we’d start all over again the next day.
I should comment on our meals. This scenario is true throughout all nine years of seminary. During our meals silence was generally maintained. A reader was assigned to first read scripture and then he would read from some spiritual book. Reading would continue throughout the meal or until the Rector rang a little bell indicating that we could engage in quiet conversation. Our response at the sound of the bell was “Deo Gratias” (Thanks be to God). At the evening meal, either before or after the meal, the lector would read from the “necrology” — a brief biography of one of the Friars who died on this day in history. There could be as many as four or five names read on a given day. Franciscans were good at memorializing their departed brethren. If you travel to old monasteries in Europe, you will see in the refectory a pulpit built into the wall from which the lector would read to the monks during meals. It’s an old monastic tradition. At St. Francis Seminary and at St. Anthony-on-Hudson, our meals were prepared by a group for German Nuns. They cooked pretty good institutional meals and worked very hard for the Friars. They were also responsible for our laundry. In the Novitiate, designated classmates cooked for us on a rotating basis.
“Particular Friendships” were strongly discouraged — you were to circulate among all your fellow seminarians. During rec periods you more or less hung out with your classmates — and that included “forced walks” — where you were required to get outside into the fresh air and walk around the spacious seminary grounds for a half-hour or so at different times during the day. There were opportunities for special hobbies at specified times. Several Friars were into woodworking and were responsible for creative plaques, nativity sets and other items that we sold to our families when they visited.
A phenomenon of seminary life was “attrition.” One day you would be walking the grounds with a classmate or a friend, and the next day he would be gone! Students left precipitously throughout the year. Sometimes of their own free will — deciding that this was not the life for them — or for other mysterious reasons. Maybe they were asked to leave for disciplinary or academic reasons. No matter what, little was said about those who left, and there was an art to the way they were usually whisked away without anybody knowing about it until they were long gone.
Ironically, smoking was not discouraged. I was still smoking while in the Seminary, and I have discovered several photos of myself smoking throughout my seminary days. Every sixth Sunday was “visiting Sunday” when your parents and siblings could visit you for the day. We always looked forward to visiting Sunday. That’s when the “Care Packages” would arrive: Tastycakes, Peanut Butter, cookies,pies, candy bars, etc. My parents were very good about not missing a visiting day.
Every so often there would be a movie shown in the rec room — or a class would put on a play or show on the gym stage. Physical exercise was encouraged through walking, organized “intramurals” and sometimes a game with another group of seminarians (there were several seminaries on Staten Island).
Letter writing home was encouraged — but all letters, incoming and outgoing were read by the Prefect of Discipline. Every once in a while you were told to re-write a letter eliminating references to an incident or an emotion being felt at the time. This rule prevented old girl friends from writing to lure you away from your vocation — or if they did write, you’d never get the letter.
To be honest, this entire regimen did not really bother me. I seemed to thrive on it and fit in fairly well. In retrospect, seeing the distractions my kids were faced with in college, I really felt that from an academic achievement perspective, I had the best deal. Left on my own to choose between studying and a party — I probably would have succumbed to the party. Having no choice but to study, I studied. My grades at Staten Island skyrocketed from my dismal high school record to almost straight “As”. I gained some self-esteem and self-confidence once I saw I was getting good grades in almost everything — and was being called upon to exercise leadership in certain areas. By the time I was ready to graduate from Minor Seminary, I was selected to be Salutatorian at commencement. For me, that was a major breakthrough and a great honor.
Of all the priests I had at St. Francis, four stood out: Fr. Dunstan McDermott, the Spiritual Director, who had a “Red Skeleton” personality and mannerisms, and who helped me approach seminary life with a sense of humor; Fr. Ronan Hoffman, my Latin teacher, whose matter-of-fact and practical approach to life inspired me; Fr. Hugh DeCicco, choir master and assistant Prefect of Discipline, who turned me on to St. Francis of Assisi. He had just returned from a year in Assisi and was able to communicate the “essence” of Franciscanism to me by his lifestyle, example and enthusiasm. More than any other Franciscan I knew, he embodied the spirit of St. Francis. The best descriptor I can think of for Father Hugh is “authentic!”
Finally, the man to whom I attribute whatever successes I had in confronting my own inadequacies; for believing in me; and who followed me through both Minor and Major seminaries and on into my active Franciscan career, Fr. Gervase Beyer. He was an intellectual and a scholar. He taught Literature in the Minor Seminary and when we got to the Major Seminary, Logic and Philosophy. Ours became a love-hate relationship, as he struggled to bring out the best in me, and once he succeeded, we both found ourselves at odds as to how to deal with it — I wanted to fly, and he wanted to control — and rather than give me wings, he wanted to clip them, and I bolted — and in the end, our mutual stubbornness hurt each of us. I still credit him with much that I have become. He taught me to believe in myself because he believed in my potential. I am forever grateful for his influence.
There are so many aspects of my two years at St. Francis I would love to share, but it is not my intention to re-live those years and bore others. Suffice to say that I can honestly say I enjoyed those two years, profited greatly from them, and have gone back many times, even recently, to contribute my time and talent to preserve the building and its spirit, a symbol of the presence of St. Francis in the world and a beacon of faith on Staten Island.
Our Lady Queen of Peace Friary, Middlburgh, New York (1954-1955).
Everybody should have an opportunity to escape to a retreat for a year when they are 19 years old in order to explore their inner and outer universe. Middleburgh was such a place — but it could have been oh so much better, had I used it exactly as it was intended. The Novitiate is your first intensive contact with Franciscanism. It is meant to transform you from being a layman into a “religious” – a person dedicated to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, not for themselves, but for the greater good of mankind – and according to the special twist that St. Francis of Assisi put on religious life — his “brand” as distinguished from Jesuits, Dominicans, Maryknollers, Augustinians and other religious orders. The emphasis in the Novitiate was on learning as much about St. Francis as you could; on learning the Rule of Life that he designed for his followers, and on making sure you possess the timbre necessary to go beyond just staying on the straight and narrow. Novitiate was meant to help you become a truly spiritual person.
I arrived at Middleburgh on July 31, 1954 by Greyhound Bus from Binghamton, NY. The first order of business was a nine-day spiritual retreat — nine days of Conferences (sermons) by a Franciscan preacher specifically selected for this — his name was Father Barnabus Eib — lots of reflection, meditation, praying, spiritual reading — everything to help “tune you up” for the special year which lay ahead of you. We were preparing for our “Investiture” as Franciscans — a special “induction ceremony” scheduled for August 15 at Our Lady of Angels Church in Albany — attended by friends and family. On that date, in a ceremony with a long ecclesiastical tradition, I would be divested of my normal street clothes and begin wearing the black robe, hood and white cincture with three knots — the religious habit of the Conventual Franciscan Order. The whole ceremony symbolized the biblical concept of being “divested of the old man with his acts” and being “clothed with the new man, created in justice and holiness.” At this ceremony, as a symbol of the change taking place in your life, you gave up your given name, replacing it with a religious name.
I was hit smack in the face with a test of my spiritual metal when I was assigned my religious name at the end of the investiture ceremony. After being fitted with the black robe, and after a series of prayers, the ceremony ends with these words: “Son, in the future you will not be known as Joseph, but as Friar Egbert.” (To which the Novice responds:) Thanks be to God. (The Celebrant blesses the Novice:) “Friar Egbert, the Lord be always with you.” Amen.
I’m not sure how I was able to respond “Thanks be to God” – My first reaction was “you’ve got to be kidding!” For me, it was a devastating blow. Each of us were allowed to submit two names for consideration, but there was no guarantee that you would get either of them. I submitted “Mitchell” (a variation on Michael) and “John Forest” (an English Franciscan Martyr at the time of the Reformation). The Minister Provincial or Novice Master must have had a sense that my vanity needed a bit of a tweak, and this name would put me in my place. For the rest of my religious life, I resented that particular name. Even though my fellow Friars called me “Bert”– I knew that if I ever taught high school I would be “Eggie” or Egghead” or other variations. But so it was — from day one, a test of my “vocation.” Years later, I finally made a case for myself and for future friars by petitioning the Minister Provincial, in the spirit of Vatican II, to allow Friars to keep their baptismal name if they wished. My request was granted in 1966 and my name changed back to Joseph — after 12 years of embarrassment and humiliation.
Our Lady Queen of Peace was in the beautiful Schoharie Valley in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains about 44 miles from Albany. The winters were cold, and the summers cool. It was a remote farmland setting on the site of an old almshouse recently purchased by the Friars for the Novitiate. While we were there, they were adding a new chapel to the property. We used a 20′ x 50′ room for a temporary chapel for the first five months while the new chapel was being completed. Our neighbor was a rather gruff farmer by the name of Grover Criss. I think he was an atheist — and having Franciscan Friars around was a novelty for him. I think he reveled in shocking us with his comments. As I looked out the window of my “cell” (a room about 15′ x 15′) from East to West all I saw was acres and acres of farmland – and far across the valley was a mountain. Eventually, we would hike up that mountain and plant a white flag on a tree on one of the peaks. My fellow friar, Albert Curzie –(the other “Bert” whose real name was — and is — Bill), a friend till this day here in New Jersey, was the main outdoors man of our class, and the guy who organized hiking and climbing adventures and who eventually planted the first flag on that mountain.
Whereas multiple classes attended the Minor and Major seminaries, in the Novitiate, only YOUR class attended. There were only 18 of us in my class. The emphasis was not on academic studies in the Novitiate. In fact, we only had classes in the Franciscan Rule and Constitution, Ascetics (the art of being holy!), and Liturgy. The Novice Master, Father Celestine, a Canadian, had a bug about etiquette, so he held classes in that. I learned all my manners in Novitiate, although Father Hugh, at Staten Island, gave us a number of pointers along these lines, too. We didn’t have TV (in Novitiate nor previously at Staten Island), but Fr. Celestine was a big fan of Jackie Gleason and he would come to class the day after the Gleason show to share all the humor.
In addition to those classes in Franciscan life, we spent a lot of time in Spiritual Reading, meditating and praying the Divine Office — the official prayer of the church, in the chapel at three different times during the day. This was before Vatican II, so everything was still in Latin. In the morning before and after Mass we would recite the Psalms in Latin in a form of Morning Prayer — one side of the chapel alternating with the other side, in the traditional manner of monastic prayer. A longer prayer period called “Matins and Lauds” took place in the afternoon, with scripture readings and psalms and readings from the Fathers of the Church (all in Latin) — this was done just before Dinner. Then in the evening we had “Compline” or night prayer in the same manner.
When we weren’t reading, praying or meditating, we were working. There was lots of work on our “little” farm. We had pigs and chickens, and a bull. I regularly assisted a volunteer mason by the name of Alex Porfirio, an Italian immigrant who installed flagstone on patios and helped build a wall and a stone shrine on the grounds. Meanwhile, the new chapel was going up. We were also converting the upstairs of our large barn into a gymnasium and basketball court.
I started out by saying that my Novitiate could have been even better than it was — spiritually — had I really been allowed to fully escape into prayer, meditation and study. As it turned out, however, for some reason, I was selected to be one of Fr. Raynor’s workers. Fr. Raynor was the Assistant Novice Master. He was a jack of all trades — he knew everything there was about carpentry and masonry, a real handyman in charge of bringing the old almshouse up to snuff as the construction workers were completing the chapel. Two of us were selected to be his “right hand men” – me and Friar Canice. The good thing about it was that we learned everything about tools and construction: how to hold a hammer, how to saw a board efficiently and effortlessly, how to manipulate a screw driver and a wrench like a pro — even how to mix cement and how to replace the rotten rope which held the window weights with chain to help keep an open window in position. We could operate power tools, knew how to put shingles on a shed like a roofer, how to hang a door — everything! Fr. Raynor was a walking “Popular Mechanics” Magazine. Not only did Canice and I learn all this good stuff, but since the job had to get done, we were constantly “exempt” from Divine Office, meditation, spiritual reading, etc., etc. While all our colleagues were in the chapel, we were out on the patio laying flagstone!
From a human perspective, Canice and I had it made — none of that daily regimentation for us — let the other guys do the praying and meditating. We were fixin’ up the place. We were learning everything there was to know about carpentry from a pro. At the time, I really didn’t mind it. In fact, I liked it. And my wife and kids will tell you, I’m a pretty handy guy in this department thanks to that experience. But from a “Franciscan formation” perspective, from the perspective of what novitiate was all about, we were missing out. I can’t say that this lack of formation was the cause of my early departure from the Franciscan Order, because my co-worker Canice, who had the same experience, went on to be the Minister Provincial of the Province, and is highly respected for his spirituality and extraordinary contributions to the church as a 50-year Priest today.
For the most part, our lives were insulated from what was going on in the rest of the world. Don’t ask me what historical events took place between August 1954 and August, 1955 — I have no idea. If I wasn’t working, on the grounds, I was praying. Despite the fact that all we got was the sports page (no news, no TV, no trip home for 365 days, no holidays at home, and the only time off the grounds was to go to the doctor or dentist in Cobleskill!) I have to confess, I didn’t really miss any of that stuff. While Canice and I were the carpenters, two or three other Friars were the official cooks, others took care of the livestock, others were “painters” or tractor drivers — everybody had a job. But Canice and I had the most time away from the “daily regimen.” One sad side effect of our job was that at Christmas Time, Canice and I were selected to put the star on the copula of the Friary. It was freezing cold as we performed the task from inside the copula. Canice ended up holding the star as Fr. Raynor and I affixed it to the structure. In the process, Canice got frostbite in his hands — which menaced him for years after leaving the Novitiate.
As the year progressed, the new chapel was completed in time for Christmas Mass, 1954. It was dedicated with elaborate ceremony in June of 1955. We were allowed four visiting Sundays, and my parents made the trip to Middleburgh in October, December, April and June. My brother and sisters accompanied them on two of the trips.
We started the year with eighteen Friars, but the life was more than four of my classmates could take. Friar Elias Larkin left before Christmas, Friar Philip Pratt left in January, Friar Agnellus Cavanaugh and Friar Hyacinth Buckalew left in the spring. The year was soon over and the fourteen remaining Friars, me among them, were candidates for “Simple Profession” – a three-year probation period as Friars. This would be our “commencement” from the Novitiate – on August 16, 1955, a full year after we had arrived at Middleburgh.
Here’s the final roster — in seniority order: Marcus Duarte, Demitrius Tansey, Barry Kelty, Mattias Combronero, Carlos Valverdi, Callistus Doral, Simeon Keltos, Cajetan Hansen, Pacificus Costello, Constantine Kapinus, Anaclete Squirut, Francis Xavier Rossell, Canice Connors, Albert Curzie and Egbert Laufer. Yes, I was the baby of the class!
Today, in 2011, celebrating their 50th Anniversary of Priestly Ordination, there are only three classmates remaining in the Franciscan Order: Pacificus Costello (now Edward – his baptismal name), Francis Xavier Rossell (now Richard – his baptismal name), and Canice Connors — my Novitiate work partner, who kept his religious name, but who was known as “Donald” growing up!
After a week at home with our families, we were to report to the Major Seminary, St. Anthony-on-Hudson for the next phase of our journey to the Priesthood. Six more years to go!
This brief summary of the Minor Seminary and Novitiate gives neither their due. However, it does give one an idea of the isolation of Seminary life as contrasted with typical college life. I have no regrets concerning the experiences I had in both institutions. I feel that my life has been enriched by the many things I learned from the activities as well as the formal education associated with Seminary life — and most of all from the personal interaction with the Franciscan priests and brothers who taught me, and my seminary colleagues who shared their lives with me.
The sad news is that St. Francis Seminary has been in a struggle for its life, not as a Seminary – that ended many years ago — but as an institution for good operated by the Franciscans. Today it is still operating as a Center For Spirituality and a Retreat Center for youth. But every so often, the Friars are forced to re-consider its mission and whether they can support the costs associated with simply operating the facility.
Less can be said for that retreat in the Catskills I once knew as the Novitiate. The Franciscans sold the property to an organization that operated facilities for elder care. It operated as Mountain View Manor Home for Adults and was closed down by the State of New York in 2006 for elder abuse! I recently found some pictures of the deteriorating building on the internet, which saddened me as I recalled my very positive experiences there. The few Novices that remain in the Franciscan Order are in a jointly run facility in the mid-west, in no way as unique as Our Lady Queen of Peace.
As I share this story with my children and grandchildren, I wonder if they can even imagine how really unique my experience was as a Minor Seminarian and a Franciscan Novice. But there’s more. Six additional years were spent at St. Anthony-on-Hudson, Rensselaer, NY — not far from the more recognizable RPI. That story will be told in the next installment.