Seminary Summers: Raquette Lake and Washington, DC -1956 to 1960

By Joseph M. Laufer


Raquette Lake – in the heart of the Adirondacks, about 135 miles or a three-hour drive from Albany

The first time I laid eyes on Raquette Lake was in the Summer of 1956.  I had completed my first year of Philosophy at St. Anthony-on-Hudson.  Upperclassmen had talked it up during the previous school year.  I had even received a Raquette Lake Post Card while I was in the Novitiate (post-marked Raquette Lake, June 23, 1955) from my hometown friend Bill Thornton (Friar Canisius) advising me: “You really have something to look forward to next summer. Our camp up here at Raquette Lake is really wonderful.”

Raquette Lake is one of the largest lakes in the Adirondacks, with a 99-mile shoreline. St. William’s Camp is located on Long Point in the lower third center of the map designated as Pine Knot Point on the map. The village of Raquette Lake is designated as such in bold text on the lower left area of the map.

I didn’t know much about the Adirondacks prior to my 1956 vacation.  As I write this, it has been 57 years since  my first trip there, and some of the details are a bit foggy.  For instance, how long was our yearly vacation there – one, two or three weeks?  (I think it was two weeks).  How many of us were there at a time?  I’m going to guess about 20, inclusive of the permanent work crew of about 5 or 6.  While I was there experiencing the camp, I was never fully aware of its history.  I have since done some research on it — especially the chapel — and the way the Conventual Franciscans acquired the use of it, and consider it a rare privilege to have been able to be a part of that history.

For my 1956 and 1957 vacations there, the dates and duration of my stay were scheduled as a part of the regular student rotation, since I didn’t have any other summer obligations.   Then in 1958, when I was selected to attend a summer school program in pursuit of a Master’s Degree at the Catholic University  in Washington, DC, I couldn’t join the Raquette Lake vacation rotation until the very end of the summer. This end-of-summer schedule was repeated again in 1959 and 1960.  Overall, I only vacationed at Raquette Lake five times while in the seminary.  These all too brief vacations were definitely fun-packed and left an indelible imprint on my life.

Shown here in the foreground is the main building of the camp which was once the rectory for the parish. The kitchen, dining room and sitting room were on the first floor. The priest in charge and the work crew resided here. The long building to the left was the bunkhouse or dormitory building.

The Friars were organized into about 4 or 5 groups of about ten each for their time at Raquette Lake.  One group of upper class men “worker bees” spent the entire Summer there — they arrived a week early to open up the camp and remained an extra week at the end of the summer to  “winterize” it and close it down.  During the camping season they were responsible for the maintenance of the buildings, grounds, boats, generators and water system.  They were also responsible for supplies and food, including the cooking.  In addition, they had responsibility for  special ongoing projects there — like dealing with the repairs, and upkeep and expansion of the buildings. The groups were generally transported to the camp when their scheduled vacation time rolled around in 4 or 5 cars of about 5 passengers each.  The group finishing their vacations would return in the same cars. The distance from Rensselaer was about 130 miles and took about 3 hours on Routes 9 and 28 through Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls, Lake  George, Warrensburg and Blue Mountain Lake, arriving finally in the Village of Raquette Lake.  Here, from the main town dock we would take boats over to the dock at Camp Saint William.

St. William’s Shingle Adirondack-style church at Long Point  built in 1890 by financier William West Durant and donated as the parish church for the Catholics of Raquette Lake. After another church was built in the village, this Church was used as a retreat for priests and seminarians of the Conventual Franciscan Order.

There were four basic structures on the grounds of Camp St. William: the chapel, the main house, the dormitory or bunkhouse and the boat house. The historic chapel dates back to 1890 when it was built by William West Durant (who was not a Catholic) to serve the Catholics of the small community which had developed on Long Point on Raquette Lake.  Durant donated the land, and the church to the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg.  It would serve the Catholics, many of them Durant’s employees, in and around Camp Pine Knot, the first of dozens of camps Durant would build in order to promote tourism in the Adirondacks. Camp Pine Knot was created in 1876 and is located inland from Camp St. William.  Today it is operated by The State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland as a small branch campus known as Camp Huntington.  When I vacationed at Camp St. William, Phys Ed majors attending SUNY’s Cortland campus participated in summer session classes there.  Cortland still offers programs there today.  When we were there in the 50s some of the Cortland students attended Sunday Mass in our chapel.

Plaque located above the door inside the church, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. It reads: Saint William’s Roman Catholic Church, Raquette Lake erected anno domini 1890.  The land designs and the funds for building were generously given by Mr. and Mrs. William West Durant.

William West Durant was commissioned by his father, Dr. Thomas C. Durant, a Railroad tycoon who had extensive land holdings in the Adirondacks, to promote tourism by building camps in the region for the rich and famous (Vanderbilts, Mellons, Whitneys, Rockefellers, etc.).  In addition to St. William’s Church, he built the Church of the Good Shepherd, a Protestant Church on St. Hubert’s Isle in the middle of Raquette Lake in 1880.

Interior of the church. There are eight rows of pews. The wooden adornment is of cherry wood.

Back to St. William’s!  It was initially the Catholic parish church serving all of Raquette Lake.  A house was built near the church a short time later and would serve as the parish rectory — and during the years we vacationed there, it was the main house for Camp St. William that served as the headquarters for the priest in charge, and the residence for Friars on the summer work crew.  It was the location of the kitchen, the dining room, the sitting and game room and the general gathering place for the Friars.  It was a two-story dwelling with an enclosed front porch.   It was the place where we hung out, read, played cards and board games, and ate.

View of the church from the lake.

To round out the brief history of the place — eventually Durant’s community at Long Point (Post Office, small store, saw mill and worker’s houses) moved across the lake to the present location of Raquette Lake Village.  Eventually a new Catholic Church was built in the village, giving it the rare distinction of having two Catholic Churches.  In 1911, the Bishop of Ogdensburg invited the Conventual Franciscans to administer the parish. (Incidentally, 1911 was the same year that the Friars purchased the Manor House in Rensselaer to serve as a Seminary).   By 1922 the Franciscan pastor, Father Henry Thameling,  moved into a house in the village, and the church at Long Point was no longer used for services (except for tourists in the summer).  Once the Church was built in the village, the Franciscans, having administrative responsibility for both properties — Long Point and the Village Church — began using the Long Point real estate as a summer retreat for the friars and visiting priests and it came to be known as the Friars Camp.  During the summer, Franciscan priests, brothers and seminarians vacationed at the camp and assisted in serving the increased numbers of summer visitors to the lake.

When groups of Friars would arrive from Rensselaer for their vacations at Camp St. William, in addition to being portaged in the boats belonging to the Friary, to facilitate the transfer to Long Point from the town dock, local businessmen would take us classic Cris Craft boats for the short trip across the lake.

During the post-World-War-II period, the property in front of the church was extended out into the lake, a bunkhouse was built next to the main house, a boat house was built in 1949, and a dining room addition was added to the main house.  The annual Fair, a major fundraising event for the parish, was still held on Long Point in the 1950s and 60s and was the only remaining tie to the parish.  In 1958 and 1959, because I was vacationing there in mid-summer, I remember working the Fair.  It was a major event for the people of Raquette Lake.  A long shed was built by the Friars on the lawn next to the church to house games and refreshment booths for the Fair.  All the Friars pitched in to make the fair a success.

Friar Gavin Murray, a member of the elite work crew, about to drive over to the village to pick up either a Friar or some supplies.

The bunkhouse which was built sometime after the war was a long, one-story trailer-like structure with about eight 9′ x 6′ cubicles on each side, each with its own exterior window.  Each cubicle contained only a single bed, a small dresser and a chair and strung across each cubicle’s opening onto the long hall running lengthwise down the middle of the building was a basic shower curtain to provide privacy for the occupant.  The cubicle was simply a place to keep your stuff and bed down.

The total camp atmosphere was rustic and austere.  Down a fairly long pathway along the shoreline from the two residences was the historic chapel.  It was one of the most uniquely constructed  rustic chapels I had ever seen, both inside and out.  Years later I saw one like it in a remote area of Russia.  Its shingled exterior and conical lines reminded me very much of the Raquette Lake chapel.  The interior of St. William’s  was adorned in cherry wood,  and the exterior was totally shingled.  It was designed  by prominent New York architect J. Cleveland Cady  at the height of Shingle Style architecture fashion.  It is a rectangular shaped, one story Shingle Style church with a steeply pitched roof.  The main facade features a two-story cylindrical tower capped by a conical roof and flanked by a pair of open porches.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

The sanctuary is adorned with a cherry wood altar and reredos. The walls are decorated with elegant stenciling, and there are two stained glass windows on each side of the altar. The remaining windows in the chapel are of clear glass to permit ample natural lighting and visual observation of the natural outdoor beauty surrounding the church.

The interior is plain, but absolutely beautiful in its understated simplicity. The upper walls are plaster, and the lower part is fitted with clear cherry-wood tongue-in-groove wainscoting, a little under 3 ft. high surrounding the entire worship space.  There are seven clusters of three window units, clear glass for adequate natural lighting and providing an inspiring view of the splendid Adirondack foliage which surrounds the church outdoors. In the sanctuary itself, there are four beautiful stained-glass windows, two on each side of the wooden altar piece (reredos). The walls  in the sanctuary are tastefully stenciled.  The architecture creates an atmosphere which exudes peace and promotes prayer and meditation.

The only access to the camp is by boat. This large dock leads to the bunkhouse and the main house on the property.

There was one other structure – a dock that provided access to the camp via water.  We also used the sturdy dock for sun bathing and fishing.  The only access to the camp was by boat from the main town dock.  When a whole group of Friars arrived from Rensselaer, we would have access to one or two classic Chris Craft wooden boats owned by local businessmen.  For daily use once we settled in, we would use one of the two or three aluminum outboard boats that the Friary owned.

Here I am in one of the canoes on the lake just off the dock.  That’s the boat house off to the right, and  in the far distance  the canoe slips were located in a land strip near the chapel.

We had several canoes which we could easily board from two canoe slips that were located at an area near the chapel.  The boat house, located between the canoe slips and our dock outside the bunkhouse, was where we stored the outboards when not in use — and where we sequestered all the boats and canoes for the winter.  In the summer of 1955, the year before I first visited the camp, one of the Seminary professors (Father Hubert Dunphy) acquired a sail boat for the Friars.  It was a classic “Lightning” and a very popular item for enjoying the lake.  Most of us learned the art of sailing from the more experienced Friars.  We named the sailboat “The Debbie” (don’t ask me why a bunch of celibate Franciscans named it after a woman!).  Friar Adam Keltos and I had the honor of re-painting the name on the back section of the boat.

Here are four Friars rigging up the Debbie, the only woman allowed at the camp.

On one occasion, Friar Mel Madden and I were out on the lake in the Debbie when a storm blew in (a common occurrence).  The sailboat flipped because of our lack of experience in handling a sail boat in stormy situations.  Raquette Lake could be treacherous during wind storms. We were eventually rescued, righted the sailboat, and returned to the camp shaken, but determined to tackle the challenges of wind and water again.   I got caught more than once in storms while paddling a canoe in the middle of the lake on the way to Golden Beach — our favorite picnic and sunning haunt.

A picnic day at Golden Beach. L – R: Tony Cavone, me, Francis Xavier, Nicholas, Alvin, Canisius, Pacificus – and that’s Duane standing high over all.

Hanging out at the popular “Golden Beach” was one of our favorite activities.  There were two ways of getting there: one by canoe and the other by hiking through the woods on one of the nature trails.  Raquette Lake had one of the longest shorelines in the Adirondacks (99 miles), and you could spend hours on the lake in a canoe visiting various coves, camps and beaches.  It could take well over an hour just to canoe to Golden Beach — and a lot longer on foot.  We would pack our picnic lunch and head out in our bathing suits in the canoe.  In addition to swimming and sunning ourselves, we would play volley ball, badminton, quoits and other games in the sand in a remote area away from the sun bathing vacationers on the beach.  The excursions to Golden Beach could last an entire day.

Another shot of the same group at Golden Beach. That’s me, third from the right.

Another activity would be to canoe to some of the various trails and mountains in the area and climbing them to greet the Forest Ranger.  Several of the mountains were capped by a fire tower, and if you climbed the tower, you would get a card verifying that you made the climb and attained your goal.  I was among several of the Friars who made these hikes regularly.

This is the Blue Mountain Fire Tower from which, at 3,759 feet, you could see all the way back  to Raquette Lake past Eagle Lake, Lake Utowana and the Marion River.

Some destinations could be other lakes connected to Raquette lake by rivers or streams.  One popular all-day canoe trip would be between Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake via the Marion River.  It was the old Steamboat Route and quite a physical challenge.  A group of us took these excursions several times each year.  We would leave Camp St. William very early in the morning, paddle along “the Point” and then enter the Marion River, canoeing for a long distance, and then enter Lake Utowana, a long, narrow lake. This was followed by a stream, which, as I recall required some portage of the canoe.  Then we arrived at Eagle Lake, and after paddling that one, arrived at our destination, Blue Mountain Lake.  Then we’d climb the mountain and fire tower to view  the awe-inspiring Adirondack vista, identifying the waterways we had just traversed.  We had to then head right back in order to arrive home before darkness fell.  It was really a great adventure.

Here’s certification of my climb up the forest fire tower at Blue Mountain – elevation 3,759 feet on August 24th, 1959.

This card certifies that I climbed the tower to an elevation of 3,000 feet at West Mountain, which was fairly close to Camp.  I made this climb on August 20th, 1959, my brother Bill’s 24th  birthday.

Depending on what priest was in charge during your week or two at Camp St. William’s, you could get a group together for “off campsite” auto tours of the Adirondacks.  My all-time favorite auto excursion was to the Blue Mountain Adirondack Museum.  It opened for the first time in 1958, my first year there.  Even back then I had a great interest in local history — and the Adirondacks are rich in history.  The museum tells the story of the rich and famous who had summer estates in the Adirondacks.   Several of the luxury Pullman cars of the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts were on display , as was a variety of historic luxury boats.  There were dioramas of winter activities and the flora and fauna of the region.  We would also be able to visit some of the actual camps of the Vanderbilts and other moguls of past Adirondack history. A favorite was Sagamore, the Vanderbilt estate, now a major resort and conference center.

This is the West Mountain Tower. West Mountain wasn’t too far from our camp, on the other side of the Village. We could take the short canoe ride past Uncas Camp (a luxury camp also built by William West Durant) and then take the trail and climb the tower. It wasn’t as long an adventure as the Blue Mountain excursion.

Father Conan in particular liked to take these field trips, and I always took advantage of his interest by offering to drive (since he was not a driver). At different times we would drive to Lake Placid (about 80 miles north of Raquette Lake) – – the site of the 1932 Winter Olympics.  Twenty years later, in 1980, it would again host the games.  On the way we would pass through other scenic lakes, like Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake as well as other remote places to get different perspectives on the region.  With each passing year I fell more in love with the Adirondacks the more I explored.  Years later, when I settled in Burlington County, New Jersey on the staff of Burlington County College, I discovered that one of my faculty colleagues, Tom Lord, who grew up in Mt. Holly, was an Adirondack aficionado and had written a book on the Adirondacks.  He would have been vacationing in and around Raquette Lake as a young college student around the same time I was there as a seminarian.  Small world!

My son Kris and my wife Penny on the lake in front of St. William’s Church on a nostalgic visit (for me) to Raquette Lake.

After I left the Franciscans, married and settled in New Jersey,  I took several trips to Raquette Lake with my family .  I have movies of my kids camping at Golden Beach and of our family at a cabin along the lake.  On these family excursions, I would rent a boat and take the family to see Camp St. William and especially the Shingle Chapel. I have to confess that their enthusiasm about Raquette Lake never rose to the level of mine.  Since we would always go to Raquette Lake via Lake George, they found Lake George with its many amusements and diversions more appealing than the stark natural beauty of rural and rustic Raquette Lake.  I made sure to take them to the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake for a primer on Adirondack History.  Is it any wonder that when I purchased my first and only house in Vincentown, New Jersey, (in which I still live) it was located on a lake, and that one of  the first “appliances” I purchased was a red Lincoln canoe!

Relaxing on the dock in a warm Raquette Lake breeze.

I enjoyed doing things around camp, too.  Friar Adam Keltos and I made a few totem poles that became fixtures on the property during the years we were there — and long after.  Adam was the best totem pole maker of the bunch, however. Using a small hatchet and a sharp carving knife we would mold pieces of soft Adirondack wood into works of art, colorfully painting them and placing them at strategic locations along the shoreline and around the camp.  I also liked the late-night bonfires we would ignite on the shore of the lake.   We had created a little pow wow area, with logs placed in a circle around the location of the camp fire.  We would conduct the traditional hot dog and marshmallow roasts accompanied by stories and singalongs and marvel at the myriad stars and constellations in the dark Adirondack skies.

Arial view of Camp St. William.

There was one ghost story that we saved every year for first-time vacationers at the camp.  It was a true story about one of our own — verified by the older priests of the Order who would be among our special visitors during the summer.  When the Diocese of Ogdenberg’s Bishop Gabriels invited the Conventual Franciscan Fathers to assume the spiritual care of the people of Raquette Lake and its missions in Inlet, Big Moose, and Blue Mountain Lake, Father Henry Thameling was the first Friar to be assigned here.  He arrived in Raquette Lake on July 11, 1911 to take charge of St. William’s and St. Paul’s in Blue Mountain Lake.  During his eighteen years here, he was responsible for much of the growth and success of the parish and was much-loved and admired by the community.  One of our senior priests who knew him said he was a die-hard outdoors man — and “his body resembled a human wedge” – huge and muscular at the top and tiny, thin legs at the bottom. In 1922 he purchased a cottage in the village for $1500 for a winter residence and, in 1929, he continued to use  the house on Long Point as a summer residence.  Winters at the lake were brutal — and the lake froze solid for most of the winter – solid enough that it was common to drive on the ice to the various points along the lake in cars and trucks.  Raquette Lake was a major source of retail ice during the winter.  Ice cutting businesses abounded.  Father Henry was driving across the ice on January 26, 1929 when his car went through an unmarked hole in the ice on Raquette Lake.  The story is told that he escaped from the car, but could not find the opening in the ice to save himself — thus he died tragically by drowning despite his struggle to survive by clawing on the unforgiving ice above him.  Of course, his story was always told around a camp fire late at night, sending chills up and down the spines of the listeners who had been warned of the ghost of Father Henry haunting the lake.

The William West Durant steamboat provides tours of Raquette Lake’s many camps.

There were numerous camps on Raquette Lake.  Nearby was Camp Echo, a girl scout camp.  Then there was a Boy Scout Camp across the lake from Camp St. William.  There was also a Jewish Boy’s Camp in the vicinity.  We already mentioned Cortland’s Camp Huntington on Long Point. Throughout the summer each group of vacationing Friars would challenge the guys at the Boy Scout Camp and the Jewish Boys’ Camp to a softball game.  It was always an enjoyable diversion – and the kids of various religious faiths were always amazed at how well those stereotyped Catholic seminarians  could play ball.

K-9 passenger with me on a canoe ride.  Our print shop at Rensselaer turned this picture into a post card.

All of these excursions had to be made by boat. On Sundays, we would enjoy hosting the campers at Mass.  While there was a regular Sunday Mass in the Village, the kids – girls and boys – and college students from Cortland –  preferred coming to the Friar’s Chapel at Long Point to see all those handsome guys in their black robes who gave up sex and money and all the fun things in life to serve God.  We were definitely “curiosities” to behold.  And we enjoyed watching the flotilla of boats arrive at our dock and canoe  slips every Sunday morning.

A rare occasion at camp when I had my habit on. That’s my classmate, Matias Cambronero on the dock with me.. I’m probably headed over to the village for some special occasion at the parish church.

We were also seen as “celebrities” in the village (or to be more accurate, as “curiosities”).  We didn’t wear our habits in town, unless we were helping out at the parish church on Sunday (at least once in the summer we would all go over to the parish church in our habits to take up a special collection for the foreign missions). But habit or not, everybody knew we were Friars when they saw us.  The Dillon Family operated the company store and hotel in town.  It was a classic country store, where you could buy just about anything — IF you could find it.  Also, there was a Bake Shop that was operated by a jovial woman named “Bertha”.  Bertha was a friend of the Friars — and she would pride herself on remembering our names from year to year — and would reminisce about former Friar vacationers who had long moved on as Priests and were scattered throughout the northeast and in mission outposts in Costa Rica and Brazil.  On one of my trips to Raquette Lake after I left the priesthood, I remember paying a visit to Bertha in her bake shop.  She was very welcoming!

Friar Matias on the left and me on the right installing  new shingles on the bunkhouse. I had learned this skill at the Novitiate under the guidance of Father Raynor.

After the first two years of spending my vacation at Raquette Lake, as I indicated earlier, my schedule became a little bit complicated as I spent the first part of the summer in Washington, DC, at Catholic University,  having to postpone my Raquette Lake vacation until the end of August.  But as I soon learned, it became a blessing in disguise.  On the down side, Fall came early in the Adirondacks.  Near the end of August the nights got pretty chilly — and the water of the lake remained chilly all day.  That may have interfered with the swimming, but it didn’t inhibit the hiking and boating (unless your sailboat or canoe capsized in a storm).  The good news for me was that because of my ability to schmooze with the upper class men, I got invited to stay on for an extra week with the work crew to close down the camp.  I was kept on as the cook — of all things — so the work crew could spend their time battening down the hatches for the winter.   One summer, in addition to doing the cooking, they had me put a new roof (shingles) on the bunkhouse.  My classmate, Friar Matias Combronero (from Costa Rica) assisted me on this project (or was it the other way around?).  My old carpentry skills learned in the Novitiate came to the rescue on this project.

1960 would be my final vacation at Raquette Lake, as the following summer I would be given my first priestly assignment at — of all places –  Seaside Park, New Jersey — before heading out to Pittsburgh for my first major assignment at Canevin High School.

This postcard illustrates the most public recreational area on Raquette Lake. It was several miles from Long Point, accessible from our camp by canoe or a trail through the woods. We would usually stake out an area in the forefront of this photo, with the beached boats separating us from the public in order to have some privacy and to have space to play games on the beach.

To say that I liked my five summer vacations at Raquette Lake would be a gross understatement.  I really loved being there.  I fell in love with the Adirondacks — their history and their natural environment.  Besides the pure R and R value of the experience, I learned a lot about this great wilderness and natural resource.  The Adirondack Preserve rivals the Pinelands Reserve for its beauty and history.  I was really fortunate to have had this experience at that stage of my life, and will always treasure it.

Some additions after initial posting

I came across a couple of pictures that might enhance the information I shared about Raquette Lake.  One is a picture of the “new” St. Williams built in the village, which made it possible for the Friars to “take over” the shingle church initially built at Long Point.  The other is a recent picture of the General Store which is located at the main area of the Village where the town dock is located.

Here’s a great view of the village of Raquette Lake from the lake. In the foreground is the town dock, behind which is the company store.  In the background, behind and to the left of the store is the “new” (1938) St. William’s parish church. We would embark here for our boat ride across the lake to Long Point and Camp St. William.

Here’s a recent picture of the General Store — it has hardly changed in the 50 years since I was a seminarian camper.

The “new” St. William’s parish church built in the village in 1938 which served as a second Catholic Church for Raquette Lake, and freeing the original shingle church and surrounding property to serve as Camp St. William for the Franciscan seminarians.

On to Washington DC!

Father Gervase Beyer, my teacher of Logic and English in the Minor Seminary on Staten Island – and the man I considered my mentor and inspiration – was also the Prefect of Studies for the entire Province of the Immaculate Conception.  That meant he oversaw the curriculum of the seminaries, in consort with the Vatican guidelines, as well as made sure that the Friars were educated for some of the special ministries of the order, particularly High School teaching. In 1958, when I was in First Theology, our Province operated Trenton Catholic High School in New Jersey.  TCHS had a long history and was a well-respected educational fixture in the Diocese of Trenton.  Four of my seminary classmates graduated from Trenton Catholic: Andy Doral (Friar Callistus), who played football at TCHS; Rich Rossell (Friar Francis Xavier), Arthur Skwirut (Friar Anaclete) and Bill Curzie (Friar Albert).

St. Bonaventure Friary, the Conventual Franciscan residence for Friars studying at The Catholic University of America. It was located on a triangle at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street on the perimeter of the campus of Catholic University in Washington, DC.

Religious Orders that operated High Schools saw them as a rich source of vocations — and Trenton Catholic was no exception, especially when it came to my class.  So Father Gervase, knowing that I was interested in becoming a teacher at Trenton Catholic, put me on the list of Friars to attend Catholic University in Washington, DC to study for my Master’s Degree in order to become a teacher.  The only way to be ready for the job at the time of my Ordination was to begin now, four years in advance, during summer school while still doing my theological studies.  Five of my other classmates were also selected: Friars Canice, Pacificus, Francis Xavier, Anaclete and Carlos (from Costa Rica).  By early June we were headed down to St. Bonaventure Friary in Washington.

(Note:  At the time of this assignment, the Order had not finalized two decisions that were apparently under consideration at the time, but had not been announced — namely, that Trenton Catholic High School was going to close in a few years, and that the Province was about to staff a brand new high school in Pittsburgh, a central co-institutional high school, named Canevin.  So while I thought I was being prepared to teach at Trenton Catholic, I was actually being prepared to be a charter faculty member at the brand new Canevin High School in Pittsburgh).

Catholic University is the premier Catholic institution of higher education in the United States (although Georgetown and Notre Dame might challenge that statement).  Just about every religious order — male and female — had a residence or convent near the campus of Catholic University.  The Conventual Franciscans were no exception.  In fact, we couldn’t have gotten any closer to the campus if we tried.  Our residence, St. Bonaventure’s (named after the most famous “intellectual” Franciscan Saint — although fans of Theologian Duns Scotus would likely challenge my claim) was located smack in the middle of the triangle formed by the juncture of Michigan Ave. and Monroe Streets in North East Washington, DC, directly across Michigan Ave. from the CUA gymnasium and a few hundred feet from one of the on-campus dorms.  (During one summer, because of overcrowding at St. Bonaventure’s I got to stay in a dorm on campus).

Washington was a great place to attend college — although oppressively hot summers in Washington, in a black woolen Franciscan habit wasn’t the most ideal time to want to be there.  Fortunately, being across the street from the campus pool was a plus!  I spent a lot of time at the pool, and it was the only one in which I ever had the guts to do flips from the diving board.

St. Bonaventure’s was not a Seminary, but a residence – a smaller version of the clericate at

In the June 19th, 2013 issue of the Provincialgram of the Conventual Franciscans, this image was polsted indicating that St. Bonaventure Friary at the corner of Michigan and Monroe Aves. had been demolished and was being replaced with this new apartment building.  The end of an era.

In the June 19th, 2013 issue of the Provincialgram of the Conventual Franciscans, this image was posted by Friar Jim Moore indicating that old St. Bonaventure Friary (pictured earlier in this blog) at the corner of Michigan and Monroe Avenues had been demolished and was being replaced with this new apartment building. The end of an era!

Rensselaer, but without classrooms.  We each had a room about the size of our room at Rensselaer.  We had a rec room, a dining hall and a chapel.  Nuns from the same German Order that staffed the kitchen and laundry at Staten Island and Rensselaer performed the same tasks in Washington. Because we were in a residential area, there weren’t any gardens or grounds to speak of — but we had the entire CU campus to enjoy walks and other recreational activity!  Also, we could walk the 6 blocks up Monroe St. to 12th street where there were shops, restaurants,  a theater, and other convenient places.  Other seminaries lined Michigan Avenue – so we weren’t really locked in. Since our CU classmates were members of other orders as well as laymen, our social interaction expanded dramatically.  It was a great change from the rather sheltered life of our seminary at Rensselaer. An interesting phenomenon was to see all shapes, forms, colors and styles of religious habits of the various religious orders walking the streets on the perimeter of the campus as well as throughout the campus.  I made several new friends from other orders during my stays in Washington.

This is Caldwell Hall, one of the older buildings on the campus of Catholic University. Some of my classes were held here.

We were pretty much on our own registering for classes — just as any other student at CU, although all our classes had to be approved by Fr. Gervase.  But once we hooked up with a campus adviser, he or she would guide us through registering for the appropriate classes for our degree path. I majored in Secondary Education and minored in Educational Administration.   We would generally sign up for three classes per summer.  My first three classes at CU were “Education Tests and Measurements I,” “Curriculum of Secondary Schools,” and “Principles of Secondary Education.”  I was on my way to becoming a High School Teacher!  Over the next seven summers I took a variety of Education courses.  The only deviation from the norm was the summer before I began teaching at Canevin (1961)  and the following summer (1962) when I took all courses related to teaching Spanish, my primary teaching assignment there.

This is the commencement program for the 1966 Catholic University Graduation at which my Master’s Degree was conferred.

I spent the summers of 1964 and 1965 writing my Master’s dissertation and was awarded my degree at the seventy-second Annual Commencement of Catholic University on Sunday, June 4, 1966. (I didn’t bother attending the Commencement). Upon being awarded my degree, I received a congratulatory note from Father Gervase which read: “Cheery congratulations upon receiving the formal attestation of your degree conferral.  I observe that your diploma has a cover with considerably heavier padding than mine.  I wonder if that means anything?  GB”

Anyone who has taken college classes in Summer School realizes that you pretty much have to buckle down, since everything is so compressed — and three classes a summer are a lot to handle.  Seminarians didn’t cut class — and the competition was tough.  Anyone who has taken courses with a class half-full of Nuns also realizes that the grade curve becomes very narrow at the top.  You’ve got to study hard to keep up with those gals!  So to deal with the pressure, we pretty much made sure our weekends were somewhat relaxed.  There’s a lot to see and do in Washington during the summer.  Several of us would go to military band concerts at the band shell on the banks of the Patomic or on the steps of the National Capitol on Saturdays or Sundays.  The 4th of July fireworks at the Washington Monument were fantastic.  I had a couple of opportunities to visit friends of my family in Chevy Chase, Bethesda or other suburbs of Washington.  The Washington Zoo was a great place to visit, as were the Smithsonian and other museums and monuments along the Mall.

Another memorable part of the Washington experience was the annual ride to and from Washington from Rensselaer with my fellow Friars.  It was a long ride, and we would attempt to select routes that would take us to historic stops along the way.  Some of the Friars would arrange to visit friends or relatives along the route.  On one occasion when I was driving, I took our carload of Friars to my Uncle Bud and Aunt Marge’s home in Westfield, New Jersey for lunch.

Before classes ended in 1959, I returned  home to Wilkes-Barre to attend the wedding of my sister, Etta, to Bill Camloh.

On August 8, 1959, near the end of my second Summer in Washington I went home to Wilkes-Barre to attend my sister Etta’s wedding.  She married Bill Camloh in a beautiful ceremony at our parish church, St. Nicholas, and the reception was held at our family cottage at Falls, Pa.  Unfortunately, my brother Bill was finishing up his stint in the Navy and was not yet home from the Philippines for the wedding.  Both Etta and her husband Bill have each passed away, much too young.

A highlight for me during the summer of 1963 was attending the authentic reenactment of Pickett’s Charge in its original location on the Gettysburg battlefield on its 100th anniversary.

Another major event that caused me to briefly interrupt my Summer School studies was the Centennial of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1963.  On that date I traveled from Washington to Gettysburg to witness the official re-enactment of this monumental battle of the Civil War. It was really the highlight of my Summer, being able to participate in this piece of history at the very site at which it took place.  Twenty-five years later, my son, Kurt, would be attending college at Gettysburg!

Members of my St. Nicholas High School Class of 1952 enter the crypt of the long-stalemated National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC while on our Senior class trip.

One of the peripheral benefits of my Summer School experience was being able to witness the final phases of the construction of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds adjacent to Catholic University within view from our Friary.  Over the Summers that I was in Washington, the work leading up to the completion and dedication of the Shrine was conducted.  The superstructure was completed in 1959, my second year of Summer School.

The crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. From 1931 until 1954, this was the only part of the National Shrine that existed.

The National Shrine was dedicated on November 20, 1959. Back in 1952 during my senior trip to Washington, the St. Nick’s Class of ’52 visited the crypt of the National Shrine, which had been completed in 1931 and curtailed for 23 years due to World War II and lack of funding.  I remember the crypt very vividly, never imagining that I would ever see the completed Basilica, the largest Catholic Church in the United States.  Work resumed on shrine in 1954,  two years after I had visited the crypt in 1952, and four years before I went to Washington for Summer School in 1958.  The first Mass I attended in the completed upper structure was in 1960 when I returned for my third year of Summer School.   Every time I see that magnificent Basilica I am reminded that I was there when it was being built.  Had I not been a part of the Franciscan community, I would not have experienced that important event in American Catholic history.

This is the completed National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the NE section of Washington DC,  on land adjacent to the Catholic University of America. This is the view from the CU campus.  It is the largest Catholic Church in the United States.  When I visited here in 1952, all that existed was the crypt (at the level of the parked cars).  While I was a student at Catholic University, the upper structure was under construction and completed in 1959.

Arial  view of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

So, as with almost all my Seminary experiences, there have been very special side benefits that I feel have enriched me.  For me, it was no small thing to have direct access to historic structures like Beverwyck — the Manor House at Rensselaer — and the very unique Shingle Church at Raquette Lake, both designated as historic places on the National Register.   And being a witness to history by seeing first hand the transition from crypt in 1952 to magnificent Basilica in 1959 and being able to worship in the largest Catholic Church in America that I observed being built is a special honor.   For a guy like me, these perks were icing on the cake of an already unbelievable education at the hands of a wonderful group of men who totally enriched my life with knowledge, wisdom, history — and above all, spirituality and fraternity.


About burlcohistorian

I'm a former educator who spent 50 years as a teacher and administrator on both the high school and college levels in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I'm a world traveler and have spent the last 20 years as an amateur historian, and since 2002 have served as the official Burlington County Historian. I am also heavily involved in the preservation efforts at historic Smithville Industrial Village, a Burlington County park near my home on Rancocas Creek, Vincentown.
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1 Response to Seminary Summers: Raquette Lake and Washington, DC -1956 to 1960

  1. Beverly Geary says:

    hi i am attempting to find out about Friar Stephen Valenta (not sure if last name ended in e,i or a) He instructed me with the Friars’ Correspondence Course in the 50’s and I subsequently converted to Catholicism. He was ordained in St Syral & Method Church in Bingham, NY and I did attend the ordination. What an exciting day for me!
    Please advise if you know anything about him.
    Many thanks

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