A solitary figure, clad all in black, out on a frozen Minnesota lake, moving gracefully over the windswept surface, glimpsed from a study hall window of the minor seminary, where he was rector. The glimpsing eye is mine. It is the early 1940s. The school is a magnificent structure on the shore of the lake in which several hundred boys and young men are being prepared for the major seminary and eventually the priesthood.
War is far off, the more so for students who read no newspapers or timely magazines. Our minds were full of the campaigns of Julius Caesar and the slow retreat of the Anabasis; Troy was under siege. If I was ever made uneasy by this distance from the grim realities of those days, my misgivings were removed by reading, years later, C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War Time.”
There were a dozen or more priests of the archdiocese of St. Paul assigned to Nazareth Hall, chosen on what principle it would be difficult to say. Perhaps the whimsicality of the prelate in J. F. Powers’ stories, based on John Gregory Murray, the archbishop of the time, was not a fictional trait. Initially at least, each priest was astounded to receive this assignment, usually his first after ordination.
The last surviving member of the priests who taught me there died recently at over 100, bringing a rush of memories and that image of the rector skimming over a Minnesota lake in the waning light of a winter afternoon while his charges were busy at their studies. The school itself had died long since, the principle on which it was raised airily dismissed as part of a forgettable past by a Church renewing itself; the property was sold for a song, a casualty of one interpretation of aggiornamento.
The priest who recently died, last apple on the bough, was known as Spud by the students, and such nicknames were conferred on most of the other priests as well, their origin often soon lost – Butch, the Greek, Harpo, Sookie, Zip, Uncle Bill, Kush. Those nicknames come more readily to mind now than their family names, conveying a mixture of irreverent love and feigned chumminess.
Those who were eager to dismantle the system of preparatory seminaries could not have foreseen what lay ahead. Did any of them regard the sequel as an improvement, a change that brought the Church more surely into dialogue with the modern world? The sudden melting away of the number of priests in the United States due to defection and to the dwindling of new vocations brought home how rich the Church had been then in personnel. Imagine the ability to assign a dozen men to the faculty of a minor seminary. True, they all did week-end work at parishes in the Twin Cities but that too recalls a time when the churches were full and Sunday Mass was celebrated on the hour from early morning until noon. The phenomenon of Nazareth Hall does indeed gather together many of the aspects of the pre-Conciliar Church.
There was of course the initial assumption that a newly ordained priest was equipped to pass on to the young the education he himself had received. That education was in large part a remnant of the classic education that had characterized schools for generations, it in turn the fruit of the liberal arts tradition, both in the version of Augustine and Boethius, and the medieval version which saw the arts as preparatory to philosophy and theology. Latin and Greek were central to it with a modern language or two, literature, history and some science. It is tempting to romanticize and idealize all this, and assume that the goal was reached. In many cases, as with Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher, the wonder was not that it was done well but that it was done at all. For all that, it was for me the most stimulating and formative experience of my life.
Like myself, a majority of the students did not advance to ordination and the priesthood. In that perhaps lay the strongest practical argument against such institutions as Nazareth Hall, but I do not recall that it was often invoked. I could formulate an argument to the effect that even so such schools served the Church, but it is impossible, I suppose, not to see that place, those years, that curriculum, in terms of its personal benefits. I cannot imagine who I would be without them
All that, like so many other things, is gone now, with fewer people even to remember it. With the demise of Spud, the last living link to those priests who made up the faculty is gone. All the more important, then, the image of the skating rector, performing intricate arabesques on a frozen lake while from the study hall students look on. You cannot skate twice on the same lake. The Catholic Thing
Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.