17 February, 2008

Seminary: The University of Saint Mary of the Lake

The University of Saint Mary of the Lake was, according to the lore, Cardinal Mundelein's dream of a "Catholic University of the West", something more accessible to midwestern Catholics than Catholic University in the District of Columbia. Mundelein looked to some land north of a town north of Chicago and decided to plant around a man-made lake a university that would rank among the best universities of the world. The first stage of his plan was to build a seminary, and he arranged things so that the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, would train the finest priests in the world.

Things didn't work out quite the way Mundelein had envisioned. I don't know with certainty why; I only know the rumors that I heard from other seminarians or faculty. I won't repeat them now, but it is a matter of history that the university never grew beyond the seminary at the head of the lake.

The main chapel, center of the seminary, stands at the head of the lake, I believe its northernmost tip. From the outside it looks remarkably like any of the Baptist churches here in town, actually, but once you went inside you lost any doubt that you were in a Catholic church. This main chapel is splendid. I remember a beautiful painting, but I don't remember the subject. A tall wooden rail, mounted by angels, had been built to separate the seminarians from any of the laity who might visit; the rail remains, although when I was there any laity in attendance were now allowed, even encouraged, to sit ahead of it. I don't know what sort of ceremonies they held in Mundelein's time, but during my time the seminary held formal masses there such as commencement, as well as one mass a week. One of the priests squandered a homily to, among other things, deride those masses, with all the pomp and circumstance they entailed, as "imperialistic", but I suspect that he was in a small and dwindling minority. He was also—amusingly, to me—the Archdiocese's vocations director at the time. I wonder if Cardinal George has any idea what that man used to tell his spiritual directees. Probably not; these things were supposed to be confidential, but the story went around that one of his directees was ecstatic at being relieved of the obligation to pray the Psalms through the Liturgy of the Hours.

To the east and west of the chapel stand two classroom buildings. I have no idea what one of the buildings was used for then; I'm not sure they used it at all at the time. The other, however, was where we had theology classes and some (but not all) philosophy classes.

In the courtyard between each of these buildings and the chapel stood a statue. I only remember the statue between the chapel and the theology hall; it was a statue of a sublime Virgin Mary, pointing to her heart.

Cor Immaculatum Mariæ, Ora Pro Nobis.
"Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pray for Us."

Those words were etched onto the pedestal beneath the statue. I have a photo of it somewhere, although I can't find it at the moment.

East of the theology hall stands the theology residence, where all the theology students lived. Students were organized by cams, which is short for the Italian word camera. I always thought that word meant "room", especially when I was sleeping in a camera da letto, or eating in a camera da pranzo, but lots of students at Mundelein insisted it meant "hall".

Further east stands the faculty residence, where philosophy students lived in the north wing, while the faculty not assigned to cams lived in the remaining wings. Across a little road further east lay a cemetery that I don't remember anyone ever visiting except me, and that only rarely. I don't even recall who lay there. A statue of Saint Paul stood to the west of the faculty residence and to the south of the theology residence, keeping silent vigil over the main road around the lake. South of the faculty residence stood a theater that, while I was there, saw use only for the meeting of a society of organ enthusasts that. Apparently the organ was good enough to play with silent film music, although I don't recall if we watched a silent film.

The cafeteria, called the "refectory", stood north of the chapel. This was separated into three main areas: two large dining rooms and the kitchen. The seminarian's dining room was a raucous affair when school was in session. We sat eating underneath a portrait of Christ's passion, which was signed by an admirer of the Nazi party. The artists so admired the Nazis that he had painted a Nazi swastika into one of the corners. This offended one of my fellow philosophy students so much that he talked to the rector, who agreed to look into having the symbol removed. I don't know whether it ever came off.

The other dining room was used when large groups came to visit, although some faculty ate there too, as I recall. The faculty had a quieter room in the back, but some of them liked to mingle with the seminarians. In case you were wondering: no, fidem scit is not written over the entrance. (Literally it means, "he knows the faith." The urban Catholic legend associating this phrase with refectories makes sense only if you pronounce it as Ecclesiastical Latin and interpret it as vulgar English.)

There were some other buildings to the west; the seminary was largely symmetric. One was the library; another was a residence for the nuns who served the faculty. Directly south of the chapel was another building that the casual visitor would not see unless he took a walk aroudn the lake, and perhaps not even then; below the road was a recreation building containing a heated pool and rowboats. The boats didn't see much use, because it was generally too cold to go out when school was in session. The lake would freeze over and eventually the maintenance chief would put up signs stating that the ice was thick enough to skate on. I tried swimming in the pool, but my skin started to complain about the chlorine, and besides I didn't like walking all the way out there in the cold.

I definitely remember how cold the Chicago area becomes! The snow would start and never seem to stop; the window would frost; the radiator would work either too well, or not well enough, and it seemed so dry all the time. I've wondered many times how differently things might have turned out if the Diocese of Richmond had sent me to Rome instead, or at least to Catholic University in DC. I acquired all kinds of curious maladies while I was at Mundelein; nothing serious of course, but still disconcerting to someone whose only real health problem in all his years before then had been persistent, nasty attacks of asthma. I don't recall a single asthma attack while at Mundelein; at least that favored me.

The rest of the university was largely an undeveloped forest. A couple of small roads led from the main highway through the (never closed) gates, around the large lake, in front out of chapel and around the seminary, then out onto a highway behind the seminary. A path led around the lake, and one could walk there and pray peacefully, or just enjoy the scenery. I tried to make a habit of walking around the lake while praying the rosary, but it never took; the lake was too large. I tried to make a habit of walking around the seminary side of the lake while praying the rosary, but that never took either. I must have done it frequently enough to discuss with my spiritual director some Canadian geese that I saw once.

I also remember the rector, Fr. Canary, walking past me on one such walk. I was approaching the chapel on a cold, cloudy day; He had left the administration building and was huddling in a long, black coat. I didn't expect him to say anything to me, but he did. Say a decade for me, John, he asked as he passed me by. I did.

Ten years ago today, on a typical Sunday evening, I likely returned to my room after dinner, sat down facing the window, and sang Vespers in my room. Afterwards, I likely walked out and visited the common room, where I probably watched a little television, joked with other seminarians, and eventually went to bed content. I probably didn't study, not out of laziness, but out of an attempt to keep the Lord's Day holy; as a rule I avoided studying on Sundays. As a "pre-theology student" I studied philosophy and had fallen in love with it quickly. Indeed, I enjoyed the common life of prayer and study. The school year's progress had had melted nearly all my fears of inadequacy in the seeming light of God's grace. As the school year wound down in the Spring, I harbored no doubts that I was on course to become a priest and to serve God's people.

Today, of course, I am a professor of mathematics, married, with three children. My inner eye widens in amazement to recall these memories. It amazes me that, for a year and a half, I progressed joyfully to what was either the greatest miracle or the greatest mistake of my life. I ask myself how I could have been so perfectly happy with it then, so perfectly self-assured, and so perfectly ignorant of the weeds growing within that would ultimately dash it all to pieces.

For some strange reason I've recently felt a desire to describe those seminary days in the weblog. I don't plan to psychoanalyze myself and discover what went wrong; I have no competence in such matters, nor any interest. I plan only to revisit the seminary as it remains in my mind every now and again. These memories are probably not quite the same as the real thing—for example, I'm worried now that I've placed the library on the wrong side of the chapel, and that it stands between the theology hall and the theology residence, or perhaps between the hall and the chapel. Still, I hope that the memories are be close enough to give the reader a feel for what one might expect. Names will be changed, not to protect anyone from scandal—since I have remained blissfully unaware of any serious misbehavior or scandal—but merely from a sense of decency. The people in my memories, after all, are not the same as the people I genuinely knew, of whom I remain, by and large, quite fond.


Clemens said...

Perhaps nothing went wrong. It is just the way it is. And maybe the way it is supposed to be.

In any case, I remember all the years I lived near the corner of Summit Avenue and River Rd in Saint Paul. On one side was Archbishop Ireland's College of Saint Thomas. On the other were the buildings of his seminary. At that time they were virtually empty. I went over there to visit the priest who was the archdiocese's archivist. He had mementos from the early days of the French Jesuits.

At the opposite end of Summit Ave., overlooking the great Minnesota state government complex, was the Cathedral the same archbishop built. I went there a number of times - it was an amazing building, designed by Cass Gilbert (as was the pro-cathedral built at the same time in Minneapolis). A few times I visited the chancellery across the street and spoke to the co-adjutor bishop. He was an impressive man, but seemed like a high powered lawyer, which was, in fact, exactly what he was.

I never became a Catholic nor, after a lifetime of studying the Middle Ages, am I unusually sympathetic to it. But I learned an awful lot of respect for it.

jack perry said...

From Cardinal Mundelein's point of view, something certainly went wrong. On the halls of the philosophy residence hang photos of every graduating class since the founding of the university. One sees steady growth, and recognizes a number of famous names, up until the 1950s or so when things seem to stabilize. I was told that during this period the seminarians resided on campus the entire year, but that Chicago Catholics visited often. There was a strong sense of solidarity between the priests and the parishioners. The most remarkable aspect to me was that people would bring their daughters in the hopes of finding a potential husband at the seminary. It was discussed as if it were a common practice, yet the number of graduates at the time is remarkable: the motto of one graduating class was numquam pastores, "never pastors", precisely because Chicago had so many priests that the newly ordained could expect to wait decades before hoping to collect enough seniority to fill an opening for pastor.

The frames for the late 1960s, through the 1980s, give evidence for the complete opposite. The number of graduates diminishes from somewhere in the 50s or 60s to something around 10. One also suspects from some of the photos that the quality of the graduates diminishes, although as they say, one can't judge a book from its cover, no matter how long the hair.

That reminds me of a joke told to us by Fr. Dan Siwek, one of the professors. He told us that one of the running jokes during the 60s was that the Vatican removed the ritual of tonsure just when it began to have meaning again.