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When stuck with an elephant, it's best to paint it white, Father Robert Koesler concluded.
"Well," said his guide, "what do you think? Recognize the old place?"
Something about the term "old." It was hard to think of himself as old. Just as it was hard to consider this building old. Yet he was seventy-three. And St. John's Centeronce St. John's Provincial Seminarywas fifty-four.
He himself was in relatively good health. For which he was grateful. But while his participation in enterprises such as baseball, football, and basketball had been fun . . . no more; he was now merely a spectator. Yet grateful to be able to still care for himself, thanks to a robust immune system.
As for St. John's, upon reflection, his assessment seemed accurate: a veritable white elephanta rare, expensive possession that had become a financial burden.
Prior to 1949, most Michigan seminarians who graduated from Sacred Heart Seminary college and still aspired to the priesthood headed for their final four years of theology at Mount St. Mary's in Cincinnati. A fate just this side of death.
Events would have continued in that dour manner had it not been for the dynamic, if princely, leadership of Edward Cardinal Mooney.
Mooney was named bishop of Detroit in 1937. Because he was already an archbishop, Detroit, for the first time and forevermore, became ipso facto an archdiocese. Unexpectedlysince membership in the College of Cardinals was at that time strictly limitedin 1946 Mooney was named a Cardinal.
He was gifted with enough foresight to anticipate the coming flood of candidates for the priesthood. So he dragged the other Michigan bishopssome kicking and screaming mightilyinto building Michigan's own theologate seminary: St. John's Provincial, serving the Province of Michigan.
Mooney pinched no penny in construction and landscaping, even adding a picturesque nine-hole golf course, which the Cardinal played as much as or more than anyone else, including the students.
There followed unparalleled upheaval in the seminary, the Catholic Church, and the world. These transformations took place in the sixties, a decade of turmoil. The Vietnam War fractured the nation. The Second Vatican Council gave birth to changes that seemed to contradict hitherto changeless verities. Seminaries exploded with hordes of applicants, only to nearly empty when Vatican II either promised too much or delivered too little.
Thought was given to expanding Sacred Heart Seminary. And, indeed, another high school building was erected. Pressure grew to complete St. John's building program.
Then, seemingly overnight, seminarians became an endangered species.
The Province of Michiganprincipally the Archdiocese of Detroitwas now running two seminaries, each of which required expensive maintaining. In actuality, either one of them was far more than adequate to house, feed, and educate the ever-shrinking number of priestly candidates.
The eventual decision was to continue Sacred Heart Seminary, eliminating the high school, keeping the college, and adding the theologate. It became Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
And St. John's? It became a white elephant.
Why was Sacred Heart kept operational, with expanded courses, while St. John's was shut down?
The obvious response was the Neighborhood.
Once, early on, Sacred Heart had stood almost alone on the then-outskirts of the city of Detroit. Along the way, the wilderness was replaced by a Jewish community. Its synagogue grew up kitty-corner from the seminary. Eventually, African-Americans replaced the Jewish inhabitants. By 1988, the consensus was that there would be no buyers for all those antiquated buildings.
St. John's, on the other hand, had practically no neighborhood at all.
St. John's went on the block. Sacred Heart circled its wagons ever more closely.
So, back to his guide's question: Did Father Koesler recognize the old place?
"Yes and no," he hedged.
It was an unexpected reply. "It hasn't changed that much," she said, ". . . has it?"
"The shell is here," he said slowly. "The buildings . . . the rooms . . ." He looked about. "But it's so much more beautifuland larger as well."
"Are you really that surprised? I mean, I know you haven't been back here since it became St. John's Center. But you must've seen pictures . . ."
"Oh yes . . . yes, I have. But the pictures don't do justice to the in-person reality."
"Is there anything else you'd like to see? We've been pretty much through the whole place. But if you want another look . . ."
"No . . . no, thank you. You've been very gracious." He hesitated. "I think I'll just wander around a bit." His smile was flitting. "I don't think I'll get lost. The buildingsat least most of themare the same. Only the names have been changed. The library reading room still stands . . . though in my day it was the chapel. And so on . . ." he finished somewhat lamely.
Her smile was meant to be encouraging. "Just keep in mind, Father, St. John's is no longer a seminary. Though it is still owned by the Archdiocese of Detroit, it has absolutely nothing to do with educating priests. Now, we hold weddings here . . . even cater the receptions. We provide counseling for troubled parents and children. We have facilities for handling meetings of almost any kind or size, as well as overnight accommodations.
"And there are recreational facilities. There's basketball and handball. And of course, there's golf"
Koesler nodded, then grinned, recalling countless hours spent by him and his seminary classmates in clearing the fairways of stones. "Up from what it was. Nine holes and lots of space in our day. I haven't been back since the course was modernized and expanded to eighteen holes."
"Now," she said, "it's a pleasuresome twenty-seven."
"But the buildingsat least the ones that were here when we were students . . . they hold memories that will never fade from my life." Half lost in recollection, he looked about, then turned back to her. "Again: Thanks for the tour."
She nodded, turned to leave, then did an about-face. "One thing you ought to be clear on, Father: You are scheduled to meet with your guests at six o'clock in the cafeteria. You do know how to get there?"
"Uh-huh. Another building that wasn't here in the beginning. But you showed it to me in our tour and I remember: It's at the end of the tunnel beneath St. Edward's Hall and just inside the Power House reception area. Don't worry: If any of us get lost, we'll yell for help."
Her eyes crinkled in amusement. "Okay."
Though it was early for the meeting, Koesler was used to being first on every scene. This exceeding promptness had its inception in boyhood, when his mother had shooed him out of the house well before the gathering time for him and his buddies. The habit had taken root. Nor could he rest on his laurels. Even now as an elderly man he grew anxious whenever a deadline or an appointment was imminent.
So, with time on his hands and feeling quite at home in these once familiar surroundings, he decided to let the memories flood in at their own good pleasure.
He was standing in what had been the Prayer Hall, directly beneath the ornate chapel that hadn't even existed during the four years he had been a student here. As he had told his guide, what in those days had been the chapel was now the library reading room. What had been the Prayer Hall was now just a large, nondescript, rectangular space. Years ago, it had been filled with bench seats with snap-up tabletops and kneelers that could be lowered to the floor for prayer. With the tabletops raised and the kneelers down, it was no place for a claustrophobic.
Sometimes the room had been used for classes. At other times, the Prayer Hall had actually been used for prayer. As in morning, noon, and night. Morning prayer was the diciest. That prayer was followed immediately by silent meditation, during which many of the groupthose not yet fully awakefell blissfully asleep. On one occasion a young man was concluding his reading of morning prayer in preparation for somnolent meditation, when he inadvertently turned too many pages. Unmindful of the fact that he was on the last page of evening prayer instead of on the final page of morning prayer, he read aloud, "Let us offer up the sleep we are about to take in union with that which Jesus Himself, took while on earth . . ."
Even the priest in charge had laughed.
Laughter in Prayer Hall was not unique or even rare. There was, for instance, the pre-luncheon examination of conscience. The composure of a couple of hundred students in cassock and clerical collar was sorely tested one day when a mouse came through the doorway, eyeballed the reflecting group, then dove under a nearby lowered kneeler.
There followed a good deal of fidgeting, shifting, and outright jumping as some of the more mischievous boys ran a finger up a neighbor's leg. Their victims were forced either to exercise extreme self-control or hop up on their seats, pulling their floor-length cassocks up around their knees.
All the while, on the podium, the presiding priest, who hadn't seen the mouse, wondered what in hell was going on.
Fortunately, the examination period ended shortly thereafter, and the students, still wary, made their way to the dining room. Sad to say, a few who were fresh from the farm stayed behind to dispatch the mouse, who, with the kneelers now raised, had forfeited any hiding place.
Two floors directly above where Koesler now stood were meeting rooms, which, in his day, had been classrooms. As was true of most of the original buildings, the classrooms were bright and airy with plenty of window space.
Sulpicians had made up the faculty. The Sulpicians were diocesanor parishpriests on loan from their home diocese and totally dedicated to training young men to become diocesan priests. Thus they were held in high regard by their students.
In addition, the courses at St. John's were at the heart of relevance for the seminarians' future ministry. Core subjects were dogmatic and moral theology, Scripture, Canon Law, Liturgy, and homileticsthe meat and potatoes of the lives these students longed to live.
So intense were some courses that gobs of dogma as well as blocks of Canon Law had to be skipped over in favor of more relevant and immediate material. So dedicated a student had the maturing Robert Koesler become that, almost alone, and on his own, he studied such otherwise neglected matter.
How things had changed over the years! His alma mater had been transformed from a single-minded seminary to a sort of Catholic resort. In Koesler's day, most courses had been taught entirely in Latin: questions, answers, texts, examsall in Latin. Now, Latin was an elective, with few takerseven though the largest by far of the branches of Catholicism is the Latin Rite, whose primary language remains Latin.
Koesler was engaging in one of his favorite pastimes: remembering the past. Sailing along on this sea of memories, he thought it ironic that he could think of nothing negative . . . nothing of the sort of recollection that causes one to wince.
Actually, of course there had been some less than enjoyable events . . . but they had softened with the passage of time. Even though these students of yore were, by and large, dedicated, they were also young, sometimes bored, and frequently funny.
Koesler continued to slowly make his way toward the meeting place. He paused as he reached what had been the crypt chapels.
Originally, one large space had been divided into five small chambers, each with three walls opening to the central area. Now, it was no more than an oddly shaped room so empty it gave no clue as to its previous use.
Once, each of the five chapel spaces had been equipped with all the necessities for the celebration of Mass. Though "celebration" seemed too grandiose a term for what had taken place there.
Each morning after meditationslumberfive faculty members went to their assigned cubicles, where the vestments of the day were arranged on the vesting table. Each priest had a student appointed as sacristan. It was the sacristan's responsibility to care for everything. Other students took their turns serving Mass, a week at a time.
Everyone whispered, in a futile attempt to cause no distraction to the others. At least the intention was honorable. With five priests and five seminarians whispering their Latin prayers in a very confined space, there had to be noise. Limited sound, but sound nonetheless.
The most heroic effort at quiet centered around the bell. A very small bell was provided at each altar. It was the server's responsibility to ring the bella total of ten times at each Masswhile attempting to keep the sound at a minimum.
One morning, a server tipped his bell ever so carefully and slowly. There was no sound. Eventually, the server was shaking the bell violently. Still no sound. It did not occur to him at the time to look inside the bell where, unbeknownst to him, the clapper had been taped to the bell's interior. The sacristan had been bored.
On another occasion, this same sacristan received a complaint from his priest. The priest claimed that he was being distracted during Mass by a spider that crept and crawled on the cross during each and every Mass. No way would the priest himself contribute to the solution of this problem. That contract was given to the sacristan, who conducted an intense search-and-destroy missionwithout success.
Finally, he reached a solutionat least as far as he was concerned.
"My priest," he reported, "gets vested, picks up the chalice, and goes to the altar. He puts the chalice on the altar, takes the corporal [a cloth resembling a handkerchief] out of the burse [a type of purse], props the burse against the wall, spreads the corporal on the altar, puts the spider on the cross, sets the chalice on the corporal . . ."
As far as anyone knew, the spider was never found. Had it been, it would undoubtedly have joined the inquisitive mouse as a sacrificial offering to the peace and quiet of the seminary.
By far, the most intriguing aspect of the crypt chapelsperhaps of the entire seminarywas the once occupied, now empty tomb in the floor.
It had been Cardinal Mooney's wishand his wishes were law to the facultyto be buried in this spot where five Masses would be offered simultaneously each and every day during the school year.
And so it came to pass that the only thing missing from this tomb was a body. The roped-off area safeguarded a plaque bearing Mooney's biographical statistics. The major events of the Cardinal's life were noted on the six-foot-long platewith the exception of his date of death.
Arguably, Mooney may have found the tomb depressing. It surely must have reminded him of his mortality. But undoubtedly he had considered it consoling that he would be laid to rest in so sacred a spot.