REMEMBERING ST. JOSEPH'S SEMINARY
by John Hinsvark, R'60
In August 1954 the family drove to the Minor Seminary for the Archdiocese of San Francisco located near Mountain View, California. They drove east out of the town, on Mountain View Drive, into the rolling hills until they passed through the main gates of the property. The road forked then and Art took the left paved road that meandered through the sculptured grounds leading to St. Joseph High School and College Seminary. Another mile and the façade of a brick four story building (plus basement and tower) came into view sitting above a three acre lawn. The one way arrows indicated that cars should use the right fork to continue to the parking lot in from the building. Veering to the right Art drove around a very inviting lawn that was used “only” on those days when parents came to visit – the third Sunday of every month.
The quiet magnificence of the Grand Entrance was made all the more imposing because of the four floors of brick and windows that stretched north and south. To the south the façade butted into the west east portion of the building. The first floor of the main building contained visiting rooms (not used too often, and never by seminarians), conference rooms (used often but again never by seminarians) and the main offices of the Seminary. The second floor contained the Library and some of the quarters of the Seminary Staff. The third and fourth floors consisted of the seminarian’s rooms. At each end of the three hundred foot cement corridor was located the quarters of the priest identified as the “Prefect” of that portion of the building. His job was to present a threat so that seminarians would not act out; but he also was a teacher, spiritual director, confessor and evaluator.
The 12 foot high windows along the front matched 12 foot windows along that portion of the west-east wing that could be seen reaching out to partially enclose the parking lot. The study hall for the First Year through Third Year Seminarians hid on the other side of the window panes (pains) and were protected by a large landscape of bushes. The upper floors were seminarian rooms, and of course the prefect for that portion of the hallway. Unseen but supporting the seminarian rooms of the second and third floor were classrooms and at the far end a study hall for the Fourth Year through Six Year Classes. The basement consisted of locker rooms and showers, a recreation room with a pool table, ping-pong table, and several tables that card games could be played on or puzzles put together, and other smaller rooms that housed the equipment for sports, musical instruments, a physics lab, and a barber shop.
Parking among the other cars in the parking lot at the top of the drive, Art, Jackie, and John entered through the Grand Entrance and joined the line of freshman students. Looking out the large windows opposite the Grand Entrance they saw the courtyard that would play a part in some of John’s adventures. On the far side of the courtyard was a one story building that contained the Seminary Chapel, kitchen and dining room. To the north of the courtyard one could look out over the countryside, which was off limits to, you guessed it, seminarians. About a mile away on top of one of the rolling hills was the Maryknoll Seminary. The Maryknollers lived in Religious Community and followed their own rules, but would walk the mile for classes and other activities.
After he registered, the family helped John move his suitcases up to the fourth floor to a room to the right of the Grand Entrance. His room had a window that looked out over the parking lot, the lawn and the trees, and down the valley that was the entrance to the Seminary. Raising his eyes to the horizon John could see the land stretching to the little city of Mountain View and beyond that the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Then, his Dad drove the family home, to return once each month on “Visiting Sunday.”
This was John’s first time away from family; he knew he would not see any relative for four weeks. He spent many a night, after “Lights Out” – the time when seminarians were to go to bed – sitting on the one chair in his room, leaning on the window sill staring through the inkiness made not so dark by the lights of small towns to his home where he knew what was going on – and what he was missing: playing card games, putting puzzles together, watching “until eight o’clock and bedtime” that new machine called “television.” Many a tear fell, many a sob heard only by the Lord and maybe the seminarian in the room next door, who was probably just as homesick as he was.
The seminary faculty consisted of men of the Order of St. Sulpice, known as Sulpicians and the Religious initials “SS”. In nineteen century France, seminary training really was not that good and parishioners found that many professionals were more educated and more ethical than their priests. So, some diocesan priests got together and dedicated themselves to train men for the Diocesan Priesthood; they were given ecclesiastical approval and took on the name of The Order of Saint Sulpice. The Sulpicians eventually came to America and open their first Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. By the time John entered the Seminary in 1954, the Sulpicians had several seminaries around the country, with three on the West Coast: St. Joseph Minor Seminary in Mountain View and the Theologate of St. Patrick in Menlo Park, a few miles away in California and St. Thomas Major Seminary in the Seattle, Washington area. The Sulpicians were firmly established as one of the several Religious Orders who taught and evaluated men as possible candidates for priestly ordination. Their recommendations were made to the Bishops who had entrusted their young candidates to their Seminaries.
On the first day of class, John began meeting the priests who would control his life for who knew how long. The one he always remembered fondly in later years was Father Joseph Riddlemoser, SS. John entered first period class and took his assigned seat – first row, center seat; there were seven rows of chairs and seven in each row. Father Riddlemoser entered, boomed out his greeting, led the opening prayer and did roll call – all in a loud, loud voice. All came to appreciate his loud voice, for when he spoke quietly he was upset, if not downright angry.
John, like everyone else, listened as Father pronounced some foreign words as he wrote them on the blackboard: Agricola, Agricolas, Agricolae, Agricolam and Agricolae. Father walked around the desk, grabbed John’s text book and began to beat the book on the top of a desk, saying in his patented loud voice, “Well, men, you are here to learn Latin and so let us begin: ‘Singular number nominative case, A-gri-co-la, A-gri-colas, A-gri-co-lae’ to stunned silence. He paused, looked around and said, “Well, aren’t you here to learn Latin. If you aren’t, leave. The rest say with me (“say” really meant shout): ‘A-gri-co-la, etc’. Seminary training had started, and did nothing to lessen John’s homesickness.
Boarding Schools are boarding schools; wherever you find, it is just like any other. Food was “Institutional Food” – clearly distinct from home cooked meals as anyone who has lived in a boarding school or the military can attest. Classes were classes – 27 credits hours a semester. Recreation was recreation – intramural sports played the Six Teams included track, soccer, baseball and swimming. Seminary life settled into a routine, a boring routine.
Interrupting this routine was the occasional new empty seat in the Chapel at Morning Prayer. And the whispers “Where is he?” answered by “Gone.”
In the 1950s and 60s, (and probably before) Seminary Staff took their job seriously. The faculty was there to see if a man had the right qualities to be a priest. Of course, no one told the seminarians what these qualities were. Or, if they did, no one really remembered them from the many words thrown at them in the nightly half-hour conferences which were done after evening study hall.
The Sulpicians took seriously the charge given them to prepare worthy men for the priesthood. Students, busy with the routine of school, were supervised, watched and evaluated. Each seminarian had a Confessor and a Spiritual Director to interact with him as he grew in his understanding of what it meant to be a priest – prayer, meditation, study, play, and personal time.
In High School, at the very beginning of the twelve year program leading to Ordination, the “weeding” process began. Through Spiritual Direction a young teenager, guided by a priest, explored his family background and gradually grew in the knowledge of the qualities and abilities needed in a priest. Some came to the conclusion quickly – others more slowly – that God was calling them to a ministry among his people other than priesthood. They decided to leave. Normally this would happen at the end of the Christmas Break – seminarians were not jailed but only separated from family, friends, and parish for most of the school year. Even Seminary Staff realized the value of spending Christmas with family. And they were free to do other things for two weeks. Another normal time would be the summer vacation. The seminarian would just not come back in the Fall when school started.
Should the seminarian choose to leave at a different time, a very simple process was available. Once he made the decision that God was calling him to a ministry different than priesthood, his Spiritual Director or the Rector of the Seminary would place the phone call to his parents and allow the maturing young man explain the situation to his parents. Normally, the parents would come that evening after “Lights out” to pick him up. John’s night time vigil would occasionally be broken by a pair of headlights driving up the Loop to the front door (almost immediately below his window) to pick up a departing man.
Another reason John would see a car approach late at night was that a decision had been made that a young man did not have the qualities necessary to be a priest. The faculty held regular meetings to discuss the students: grades, attitude, respect for authority (defined as instant obedience and unquestioned obedience to the rules and regulations), ‘particular friendship’ (a one to one male special relationship) and that long list of other important “rules. When a student was deemed lacking “priestly qualities”, his parents were contacted and told to come and get their son. The departing one was told after study hall, night prayer and “Lights Out” that he should pack because “your parents are downstairs to take you home.”
A third reason for the afternoon phone call was that a seminarian had broken one of the more serious rules and disrupted the routine of the seminary. The result was expulsion. One of the Staff was the Prefect of Discipline; for John’s four years of High School his name was Father James Canfield, SS. His official duty was to supervise students to make sure that they knew the meaning of, and practiced or rather lived, obedience to the rules. Father Canfield was omni-present – once believed to be an attribute only of God. And he was quiet. Hence, his nickname was “The Cat.” Every new student to the seminary learned quickly the meaning of the statement that “The Prefect of Discipline was judge, jury and “deporter.”
During student free time, Father would be out and about walking at a high rate of speed and reading his breviary. Or, at least, he seemed to be praying his breviary; he must have prayed the Office several times each day because he was rarely seen without his breviary, open with pages flapping the breeze cause by his speed. But he was on the lookout for activities “against the rules.” He had been at the job so long that he knew the “mischievous thoughts” of students before they even thought them. Many are the stories of seminarians planning some minor breaking of the rules who fortuitously happened to see The Cat striding nearby.
During that first year, however, a few things did happen when The Cat was not present. Or, at least, he gave no knowledge of having been there. Often, the morning discussion at breakfast would be about who was “shoe polished” the night before. You know the procedure. Each seminarian had his container of black shoe polish for shoes had to be brightly polished (for ALL priests had bright shiny shoes). One would walk slowly down the dimly lit hallway on his way to the common bathroom, and making sure no one else was in sight, he would pause oh-so-briefly outside his intended victim’s door and twist the opened container on the doorknob. Sometimes, the “Grand Silence” (that period between Night Prayer and Breakfast the next morning) would be broken with a startled “Oh, s…”
Seminarian justice sometimes involved a “Jake’s Shampoo”, almost always during the Grand Silence. You know the procedure. Four men would take the deserving offender, work their way into one of the stalls of the bathroom, flush the toilet and while the water was running put the guilty one’s head into the commode. Depending on the offense, flushes were repeated.
Then there were the times when a seminarian would return to his room after Night Prayer to find his door hung upside down, or missing along with the contents of the room – all of them: desk, chair, bed, clothes. He had come back to nothing!
One of the major rules (majorly broken) was “No Personal Radios.” Each class had its home room and it was equipped with a radio that students could listen to – at certain times, and never after Study Hall, or even before it for that matter. No one admitted to possessing a transistor radio – for that was immediate dismissal. But morning discussions over breakfast showed an amazing knowledge of what was happening outside the “walls” of the seminary.
A rule of thumb was passed on from upper classmen: ‘if you do something even against the rules, don’t talk about it. If you talk about it, then the faculty has to do something about it. And you have to suffer the consequences. But, if the faculty does not know who did what, then the faculty cannot take action’. The other side of the coin was, ‘if the faculty is aware of something happening, but is impressed by the audacity of the individual(s), they may do nothing because they too enjoy what happened.’ But if a seminarian brags or “possesses too much knowledge” then the faculty has to take action.
One soon to be ex-seminarian had forgotten this principle and returned to his room after Night Prayer to find everything he owned piled high on the disassembled bed. On top he found the four pieces of his transistor radio and a note that read “Come to my room” signed, The CAT.
One mid-December morning the whole student body saw the fully decorated Christmas tree that had been in the grand foyer standing in royal glamour on top of the roof, 4 1/2 stories above the courtyard. No one had talked about how it got there or who had done it; so no one was punished. When John left St. Joseph's minor seminary five years later, he still did not know who had done it. He believes the faculty was smiling and chose to do nothing about it.
Believe it or not, John was involved in none of these. But, look out year 2 and beyond.
John did have a few surprises for the faculty and his classmates. After the final examinations at the end of that first year, he followed the procedure to get his grades. Most professors would say when he would post the results of the tests, quarters and semester on the Bulletin Board; others would post a schedule of fifteen minutes sessions to discuss either class participation or “shoot the breeze’ but everyone got his fifteen minutes and no one knew whether it was fame or (infamy).
For Father Riddlemoser, the process began with the students lining up outside the door to his apartment. Each student would knock, open the door at Father’s “Come, in”, close it behind him, and walk to the front of the desk on which lay an open book with a twenty-four inch ruler in Father’s hands hovering over it. Father would look up, say the student’s name, look at the open book and move the ruler until it was under the student’s name and follow the straight line across to the student’s grade. After hearing his grade, the student would repeat the grade, say “thank you” and leave. For the final grade of the year, John knocked, opened the door, stepped through, closed it, and walked to the front of the desk. Father Riddlemoser looked up, said “John Hinsvark”, looked at the book, followed the straight line across and said “Ninety-four.” “Ah, just a minute” before John could repeat the number and turn to leave. He went through the routine more slowly and with a look of surprise repeated “ninety-four” as if that grade did not fit with the eighty-one and twos John had received throughout the year. As John would later say, “I am be a slow learner, but once I learn something I have learned it.”
The first year drew to a close. Visiting Sundays had come and gone; Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter had faded into history. John’s classmates who numbered forty-two at the beginning of the school year now numbered twenty-four. But the end of the School Year was not yet, for even though students would go home on the a Thursday in late May the Seminary School Year really ended for both St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s two days later with the Ordination of the new priests at the Cathedral of St. Mary in San Francisco.
One of the priests of St. Joseph Parish and one lay person drove the eight seminarians of the Parish to San Francisco that beautiful day in May, 1955. John and three others rode with Mr. Donohue. Alameda was separated from Oakland by an estuary. Access to Oakland and then the Nimitz Highway going both to San Francisco and to San Jose was provided by three bridges (The Park Street Bridge, The Versailles Avenue Bride and The High Street Bridge) toward the middle and south end of the Island and by the Posey Tube at the north. Mr. Donohue stayed pretty chose to Father as they drove from the Church that Saturday morning all the way through the Tube. But as the two cars turned onto the Nimitz Highway toward San Francisco (“The City”), Father sped away. Mr. Donahue continued doing the speed limit. To the chorus of “catch him, catch him” he responded. “Look, I am only a layman. I do not have the same equipment on my car that Father has.” Seeing their puzzled expression, he added “Priests have a Guardian Angel on each tire.”
After a summer spent at his mother’s sister’s family farm in the San Joaquin Valley town of Gustine, John returned to find new classmates and an interesting fact that affected his whole seminary career. Everyone was talking about the assignments of the newly ordained priests. The majority had entered the Archdiocesan Catholic School System and were teachers; a very few had gone on to Advanced Studies and the rest were assigned as Assistant Pastors. Some Associates were deemed blessed because their Pastor was known to be easy to work with and was involved in their “internship”, but all were extremely busy doing pastoral work.
John looked beyond what the student body saw as facts; he saw “what was written between the lines.” Newly ordained priests with a B grade average went to teach in schools or go on for further schooling. Those with a C or lower went into parishes. He concluded, “If I am ordained a priest, I will have a C average.”
John was convinced that he was in the seminary to find out “Is being a Parish Priest what God wants me to do with my life?” Like Samuel who had to listen and follow the instructions of Eli, John was learning information and habits that would be good in later life, no matter what job and ministry God called him to. Seminaries have the best of dedicated teachers and Sulpicians were known for the excellence of their work in teaching the Liberal Arts. The ranks of Catholic men are populated with men who entered the seminary, stayed for a while, and having left continued on the path God wanted them to walk in ministry to his people.
John maintains he was not the “obedient angel” many of the faculty and family friends thought him to be. But that first year, John had learned the “rules and regulations” as well as the “secrets to survival”.
The Second Year – and John apologizes for his way of talking about seminary training, but that was the way seminarians talked. There were six years in the Minor Seminary, followed by two years of Philosophy and four years of Theology at the Major Seminary. When asked John said he presumed the object was to get future priests used to thinking of priesthood as being different from a secular lifestyle – thus, a different language. The end result was that seminarians who eventually were ordained never graduated from High School nor got a diploma from College. But when required, an institution or corporation would be provided one.
Anyway, the Second Year was a repeat of the First Year, but with new Professors and subject matter. The Religion Teacher asked the class, sometime during the first month, “How many of you have read the Bible cover to cover?” When no one raised their hand he continued, “And you want to priests!” Needless to say John read the Bible cover to cover when he was fifteen. The same teacher came in for the final exam of the year and said, “For the final exam I want you to answer the question, ‘Why?’” To blank stares he said, “Why? Why did we have this course at this time in your training for priesthood? When you are finished you can leave; just set your paper face down on my desk.” And he left. The class started writing, except for one who got up almost immediately and walked out of the room pausing only to put his paper face down on the desk. He was the only one to an “A” for the course. His essay was two words, “Why not?”
The normal routine of seminary life was disturbed in several ways. First, you have to know that the Seminary was built on the San Andreas Earthquake Fault. Seminarians could hear the earthquakes coming. They really could. The topography in that part of Santa Clara County was like this. Going north toward the southern end of San Francisco Bay the land fell gradually away in gentle rolling swales. Going south from the Seminary buildings the land fell off abruptly to the flat grassland that was the sports field and then rose and fell to three peaks, the furthest one five miles away.
Most earthquakes came from the south. And once a person has heard and felt an earthquake, s/he never forgets. Seminarians first heard the earthquake as a soft sound five miles away gradually intensifying at the peaks but more muffled in the valleys in between. As the quake hit the sports field, it roared; as it went under the building the sound bounced off the walls of the rooms as the rooms themselves shook. While the chandeliers gently, and many times not so gently, swayed the sound would fade out down the valley.
They became so accustomed to earthquakes that they rarely looked up at the first sound. And if they did, it was to look at the puzzled faces of new seminarians. During Study Hall, one time, the priest assigned to this duty was so engrossed in what he was reading as he walked back and forth across the back of the forty by one hundred foot long room that he did not hear it coming. As the sound died out, he ran to the front of the room, stood in the doorway and shouted, “Get out of the building or take cover! The Safest place is in a door way.” The one hundred and two students remained in seats and laughed for he was standing in the doorway.
Rev. John J. O’Neill, SS, ran the Seminary Store. Early in the year he approached John and asked John to work in the store. Since it was an opportunity to earn spending money – the only one there at the seminary – John said “yes” and began learning the “business”.
Two activities brought the joy of interruptions to the normal routine of seminary life: the VW and the Hall Meeting. And somewhere in midst of too many minor interruptions, Father Riddlemoser, SS fumed for a few days.
Entering the Seminary through the Main Entrance, a person stepped into marbled covered fifty foot square room, with very little furniture. Of course, no seminarian could use that entrance; they had to use the side or back doors. Opposite the entrance and a bit to the left the wide grand marble staircase rose splendidly to the top floor with landings every twenty feet or so. Down the marbled hallway to the left were the Seminary Offices and to the right were the library, rooms in which visitors were welcome, and the Seminary Store. At the beginning of that right hand hallway heading southerly, was the Main Elevator. Some Professors, and visitors, chose to use the elevator; but, of course, no seminarians.
One day, John and three others were on the fourth floor. They heard Father Riddlemoser talking with someone on the first floor; it is amazing how sound echoes in a marble tunnel, even a perpendicular one. Quietly, they talked about pushing the button on the elevator just as Father, or just before Father, pushed the button there on the ground floor. Finally, they heard Father say his goodbye and walk to the elevator. John pushed the button and encouraged his friends to walk away. They didn’t. The elevator began its accent. It continued to rise and eventually opened its doors just a few feet from the four of them. The door closed and the elevator began its descent. A few moments later, the loud voice of anger reverberated through the building, even to the fourth floor; no one had stepped out of the elevator Father Riddlemoser was waiting for. John volunteered the information that they really should get out of there before the elevator opened again, for he was sure that Father was coming to the fourth floor, not the second where he lived. When they still hesitated, John said, “I pushed the button!” They had just turned the corner at the end of the hall when the elevator door opened and a voice said, “Now I have you.” But he did not. No one was there and no one talked about it. A few days later he seemed to have forgotten the incident; but still no one talked.
That was the year of the VW. In the dining room (the Refectory), students sat eight to a table, supervised by the faculty who sat at a long table four steps above the level of the students. They would be with the students every noon and evening meal. But the morning meal was attended by only one member of the Faculty on a rotating basis. One morning the Faculty member did not show up; he happened to be the President-Rector. Slowly, a rumor spread through the room. Father could not get out of his room. A locked VW Bug blocked the door to his apartment, just above the Seminary Office.
It seems as though the Bug drove itself in through the Main Entrance with its double doors, across the lobby and up the Grand Staircase, and parked itself in front of Father Campbell’s door – the only entrance to his apartment. It had to have happened that way because no one ever talked about and so were not disciplined. To this day, John still doesn’t know who carried it up the stairs.
The Faculty had learned of John’s ingenuity and willingness to do unusual tasks. The asked him to be the leader of the group that cleared the Sports field of rattlesnakes each day before the daily scheduled Recreation Time. So he and two others left class early and carrying a pointed shovel headed down the hill to the Sports Field. About three times a week, especially in the warm days of Fall and Spring, they would find at least one rattlesnake. If located near the perimeter of the Sports Field, they would persuade the snake to head for the hills. If the snake could not be persuaded, and thus save its life, then the shovel drove home the point that the snake had made a bad, bad choice. Head and body were separated; the body when roasted was delicious. If the snake was in an area too far to be chased off, head and body were separated in the normal fashion. One time, though, John felt uneasy because of the size of the snake – a six footer. He told his cohorts to take a nearby picnic table and turning it on it side to place it between the rattlesnake and himself. John’s aim was off that day and missed the rattler which struck at his attacker, hit the picnic table and came under it on the uneven ground. Jumping back, too late to have missed the strike, John used the underside of the table as the sliding edge for the shovel. This guillotine worked. That particular snake tasted especially good.
Although busy with taking 27 credit hours per semester – each semester for six years – seminarians found time to have Town Meetings, actually Hall Meeting. Usually held outside of Class-Recreation-Prayer time (you know, during the Grand Silence), a few seminarians did manage to attend. During a Hall Meeting, anything could happen – up until the time either of the two Sulpicians opened his door. The younger Faculty members had their apartments among the seminarians – two to a floor. The West end Priest’s apartment was at the end of the two hundred foot hallway and the other two thirds toward the east end.
One full moon in November, 1955 John took part in a Hall Meeting. The instigators, including John, quietly summoned all twenty members. Those who responded positively to the invitation joined the group running to “committee” meetings – but not far from their rooms. The place was rocking until the lookout “hist”ed the warning that the floor Prefect was walking across his living room toward the door. Silence reigned broken only the sounds of stocking feet sliding along the waxed concrete floor. John slid two feet beyond his door and was diving back into his room when Father yelled his welcome.
Four doors were pounded on and the message given “See me in the morning.” John’s neighbor got the abrupt message, not John. After breakfast that morning John told him that he, John, would go to the Priest’s room. The surprising result was that the four “instigators” – those who were seen – spent Thanksgiving at the Seminary where the turkey dinner was delicious. However, they spent most of the day, writing longhand, the Introduction to Webster’s Dictionary. All were surprised they were not dismissed.
Third Year of Seminary schooling again meant new material (toward a proficiency in Latin and Homeric Greek that would be needed for study of the Bible in the original languages – Aramaic was left to post-theology graduate work which John was making sure he would not do – his grades were around a “C”.). There were new Sulpicians, new professors. He looked at some of the returning Faculty with added interest for they were to be his teachers that year. And the routine began.
To make sure the future priests would be fit and healthy, every student was involved in intramural sports activities. But there was still time for the activities that kept seminary life interesting. One that kept John busy during this Third Year was the School Newspaper. Third Year Students had the responsibility of putting out the paper four times a year. However, John’s class tended to overachievers and so they put out five. The third issue almost never went to the Spirit Duplicator. During one of the breaks, someone decided to comment on its contents before it was published. John returned to his desk to find gutter language scratched across the page. Later in life, John would refer to this gutter word as “’THIS’ reorganized” (S..T). John had had an aversion to gutter language, especially “’THIS’ reorganized”, since he was a boy.
When John was seven or eight, he walked into the family kitchen where his mother was washing dishes. She had asked him to do something. John saw the opportunity to use the new word he had learned while playing with his friends. He responded, “Shit, no.” Taken aback, Jackie grabbed a towel to dry her hands and said, “What did you say?” So, he said it again, more boldly, “Shit, no.” Jackie took him by the hand, walked him the length of the house and up the stairs to the bathroom where she said, “Do you know what ‘shit’ is?” John quietly said, “yes”. As she reached for a bar of soap she said “And where did it come from? From your mouth. So, we have to clean your mouth.” She took the bar of Felsnapa soap, inserted into his mouth and rolled it a couple of times. John had problems even telling the story.
As a member of the newspaper staff, John was on the end of verbal abuse when someone disagreed with what was in the paper – as were the other members of the class. One time, though, the verbal abuse turned physical. It happened in the cloak room, just outside the Study Hall. Finally, John had the individual on the ground under him with his arms and wrists pinned to the floor. All struggling finished before the whole student body crushed into the small room. Seeing the two of them on the floor, John holding the aggressor’s arms pinned to the floor and his legs immobile under his legs, someone said, “Let’s get a camera; the faculty would enjoy this.” And although completely clothed the two fighters quickly disentangled.
That year’s Hall Meeting was different. Several men were induced to take part from the safety of their rooms. Each had a two inch by four inch piece of lumber, four feet long. Their objective was to make sure the sixteen pound shot put continued down the center of the hallway toward the cast iron steam radiator at the far end. At the end opposite the intended target one seminarian launched the shot put and then ducked into his room. Everything worked to perfection. The sound of the thrown shot put changed gradually from the first loud Ka-thunk, followed by silence, to continually less-loud Ka-thunks, to a rumbling as it continued down the hallway, aided by the conspirators who closed their doors as the shot put rumbled pass them, having redirected it if necessary. They listened for the crash. And it came, very loud after the muted rumbling that quiet night.
John had the room next to the radiator and across from the Floor Moderator. His job was to get the shot put, get back into his room and quietly close the door -- all before Father opened his door. He did. Knowing that he had to get rid of the shot put and knowing that someone might find the shot put the next morning, he did not want it to be found below his window. So he leaned out and threw the shot put away from his corner room so that it fell beneath one of the many other windows. He was climbing into bed when Father noisily opened his door – to silence, and no evidence.
Unplanned in the operation was the fact that the gardener had spaded that part of the landscape the day before. Despite several attempts to spot the shot put over the next couple of days, it remained on un-found. Had the Faculty found it no one knew. For neither the conspirators nor the Faculty talked about the incident. If it lay unfound, then it may have been found by the destruction company who had the contract to remove the remnants of the building after an earthquake in 1989 destroyed it.
Two things happened the end of Year Three that need mentioning here. The Cat called John in for a meeting. John wondered which of the many things he had been involved in that Father Canfield, S.S. wanted to talk about. He also wondered if his parents had been called. Father commented on John’s study habits, attention to details, obedience to Seminary Rules, and volunteerism. John wondered what was coming. Was he there for dismissal? No, Father Canfield wanted to talk about a position of authority given to Fourth Year Men to help with the smooth running of that part of the Seminary.
The Faculty had chosen John to the “Key Man” – the fourth year student who had the responsibility to open and close all the doors when these needed to opened or closed. John was amazed as were his cohorts. Their mischievousness the following year would be so much easier, but more dangerous.
Another more important event, John was experiencing inner turmoil. He and his Spiritual Director had been continuing the discussion of whether going on toward priesthood was the right decision. John was not completely open with his Spiritual Director. Oh, he knew John was “questioning” his vocation. But he did not know that in his private prayer he had gotten to the point where he told God, “I am not coming back in September.” On God’s side, as John always told the story later, God was standing at the big picture window in Heaven with his arms crossed, looking at and wondering at the actions of all his creation on earth – sometimes shaking his head with the attitude “Oh, here we go again! When will they ever learn?” When he heard John make that comment God focused on him and said, “You want‘a bet?”
John was experiencing that indecision as he sat in Father Canfield’s office. John was to have the same discussion with God at the end of Four Year and First College. The result was the same. John returned to the Seminary each fall. In Second college (the beginning of his Sophomore Year), John spoke again to God of God’s Call to him to be a Priest. He said, in prayer, “Okay, God, you win. I accept your call to priesthood. Lead me where you want me to go.” Later in life, John would tell this story and end with, “If you want the ride of your life, give God a blank check, WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED. And then buckle your seatbelt.”
During the years of 1955-6, the Archdiocese of San Francisco expanded the Seminary Complex to accommodate the larger number of men applying to enter the Seminary. St. Joseph Minor Seminary doubled its capacity with the addition of what came to be known as The College Wing. The new wing was built across the north opening at the north end of the courtyard, and was as long as the original south wing. On either side of a very large Chapel were classrooms on the first floor and student rooms on the second and third. Opposite the High School Study Room was a large community room for College Student Activities. College Students could study in their rooms. The basement of this wing contained a large basketball court, at one end of which was a large stage for theatrical presentations like "Stalag 17" and "The Pirates of Penzance.” Beneath the classrooms were locker rooms, showers, recreation rooms with pool tables, card tables, a Television and small hobby rooms and a barber shop. This wing opened for the Fall Semester of 1957.
So when John and his class returned for their Fourth Year, they were the Senior Class in the Old Wing. And John had the keys!
Father Canfield gave him the keys to the building and showed him what he was to do in the morning for opening the building for use and in the evening to shut it down after Evening Study Hall. John, and his co-conspirators, were set for the year.
His biggest challenge to keep his job and to remain in the seminary came with the championship fight between ______ & __. The day after the fight, even before breakfast, the school was abuzz with the details of the fight. Not only were the transistor radios in use, but several Fourth Year students had been rumored to have listened amass in their Home Room. The Faculty who had comfortably watched the fight on TV was disturbed, to put it mildly. Father Canfield called John in for a conference to find out his participation in the rumored mass gathering. John maintained that he had followed proper procedures as explained at the beginning of the year. And that he had not unlocked the doors for his classmates.
They went to the classroom. John demonstrated how he had locked up the night before: lock the front door, walk through the classroom to the back door looking at the locking mechanisms on the windows against the outside wall to be sure the handles were down, lock the back door and close it as he left. All the handles were still down. Father walked over to the windows and pushed the one opposite the front door. It swung open; they both expressed surprised. Someone had filed off the part of the locking mechanism that was inserted into the window sill when in the locked position. Of course, John never told Father that he was the one who had hacked sawed it. John had to protect his position as “Key Man.” John does not remember how many times he has followed one the prime seminarian survival techniques: “Do not volunteer information; answer truthfully any question asked, but add nothing to what was asked for”.
John survived the year quite well and returned in the fall to being a lower classman again – but only for a year because there was only one year left in the Minor Seminary.
One of the rules, somewhat minor but still important, was that the students were to be in their class or their rooms when the bell sounded. One of the many times he was running behind schedule, the bell started to ring. John pounded down the hallway on the first floor, up the stairs at the end and into his room before the bell stopped rings. It was a short run. After Evening Prayer that night, the priest leading the conference made the announcement: “If you are close to your room when the Bell begins to ring, you do not have to pound down the hallway like an elephant just to get to your room “on time.”
John got the message. He didn’t stop running in the hallways, he merely ran “softly.” He kept this ability throughout his life. Even when the number 200 on the bathroom scale blurred past as John stepped on it, he was able to walk up a person and startled that person – sometimes, over and over again. He likened it an elephant walking as a mouse.
In one class that first year of College John learned two non-curricular actions that traveled with him through the rest of his life, even when that faithful companion of older age arrived, Arthur Itis.
All classes began and ended with prayer led by the Professor. This particular Professor had a unique way of making the sign of the cross; he made it the same always. While saying the words “In the name of the Father” he would touch his forehead (as all Catholics do). As he continued with “and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” he would touch his sternum three times. The first time John saw it he was surprised for the normal activity is to touch the head, then stomach and each shoulder before saying “Amen.”
John was already learning the sign value of each of the sacraments and sacramentals. Signs were meant to be signs. Sacramental Signs were not to be minimized. The memory of the “touch to the forehead and three thumpings of the sternum” stayed with him. When he made the sign of the cross on himself, he made full size. When as Deacon and then as Priest he made the sign of the cross over people he made it larger than full size.
He also learned to look at people when talking to them or reading to them. The Professor read his class, from the text book. That is right. When he taught class he would sit at his desk, except for those rare times when he had to write on the blackboard, and read the text book at the class. He would always look up; he didn’t bury himself in the text. But when he looked up, he looked up. He would look up to the right, way above the heads of the students, and to the right. The first few times he did this the class would look up in the same direction to see what he was looking at: it was a corner, a corner created by the ceiling, outside wall and the support pillar. He never looked anywhere else, unless the said “Are there any questions?” or a student would say, “Excuse me, Father.” At the beginning of one class he looked up and saw the sign “Hi”. Oh, did he get upset! And no, John did not do that.
Throughout the six years, one class seemed to be the “most boring” but “most necessary.” It had different names, but the same content. “Speech” was the common denominator. In this Fifth year, one whole quarter was spent in “Speech Class” doing impromptu reading. During the first semester the seminarians took turns reading from the same book – each of us had a copy and was to prepare to read at each class. However, Father would follow no pattern in having students read. The “impromptu” was that one student would read, sometimes five minutes, sometimes ten before Father would call another student to the front of the class to continue the reading. Boring! But occasionally, a student was caught who was not prepared. The students got use to the idea that they had to be always prepared. It took only six or eight episodes of a student being called on the day after he had read to realize that preparedness was next to godliness.
Second semester saw development. Father would bring in a book, never the same one two days in a row, and call students forward to read – this time with no preparation. And they were graded on their ability to read “intelligently.” John had an interesting episode during the second semester. He had been called forward to read; he was doing well, but he came to the word “face-tious” split at the end of one line and continuing to the next. He read it “face shous.” Father called from the back of the room, “Read that again.” So he did. The exact same way: “face shous.” The class smothered chuckles. Father said again, “Read that again.” So John did: “face shous.” The class laughed. And Father said, “John, don’t be facetious. Read that again.” John caught on. He read the sentence as it was intended with “facetious” getting the proper pronunciation. He maintained that that was the first time he had seen that word hyphenated.
John did find a quiet out of the way place to escape to whenever he wanted. Even in a Seminary Dormitory where “Silence is the rule above the first floor” men visited on a regular basis. The rule was there, but the Faculty allowed the individual students to monitor themselves. Even though it was mainly quiet John wanted a place to get away. Using his many talents and exploring the relatively new building – it had been finished only a year before – and employing “the secrets to survival in the seminary” he found a secluded place, very secluded.
On the second floor, access to the balcony of the Chapel was gained by either of two doors off the side so that the opening of a door would not distract the Presider at the activity going one, whether it was the Eucharist, Benediction, or Conference. To get to those doors a person turned off the corridor to a very short hallway that had two doors, one straight ahead that was always locked, and one to the right that opened into the Chapel (or to the left depending on which side of the Chapel the person wanted to enter).
Those locked doors intrigued John. Even thought he was no longer a “Key Man” and had no access to the keys, he did get it opened. He found a ladder leading up to a trap door. There was a room above the Chapel ceiling, encased in cement. The walls and the ceiling were obviously concrete because they were part of the main structure. But the area between the side walkways was also concrete, although from the Chapel itself, the ceiling was solid wood.
At the far end, above not the Main Altar but above the vesting areas and other rooms, was an open space that could not be seen from the other end. Once appointed, it turned out to be a place away from everyone. He borrowed a key from the janitor room and had copies made. That was the easy part, getting the pillows, chairs and tables up there was the difficult part. But it was done and was regularly used for two years.
The College Wing had its own recreational field for baseball and soccer, but used the lower field to the south of the building complex for track. John believed that this separation of not only of sleeping quarters, dining area, and recreation was the reaction to the “sick six system” complaints offered by seminarians, former seminarians, and priests. In the late fifty and throughout the sixties and seventies the clergy continued to talk about the “lack of maturity” seen in men who entered the seminary as Freshman High School Students when compared to men who stayed in their homes and parishes for High School before entering the Seminary. The end result of this across-the-board discussion was the cessation of High School Seminaries in northern California, Oregon and Washington.
In 1995 Father John, who at that time was Vocation Director for the Diocese, was talking with a brother priest about the status of recruitment. This other priest offered the opinion that Dioceses should not, nor should have, recruited boys in the eighth grade to enter the rarified atmosphere of a seminary. The main reason, “in my opinion” he said, was the lack of maturity those who continued on priesthood showed in priesthood.
When Father John said that if Dioceses had not recruited in the eight grade he might not have become a priest, his friend looked shocked and said, “You entered as a Seminary High School Freshman?” When Father John answered “Yes” he went on to say, “John, I have always prided myself on being able to pick out such priests. But I would never have thought that of you.” Father John never mentioned that this might be because of his six brothers and five sisters.
Anyway, the College baseball diamond had never been completed. Oh, there was a sort of backstop behind the catcher, but for three years the team up to bat had to chase down all the foul balls. John and company (four classmates) continued their practice of making the school more sports friendly. In the summer of 1961, they finished the backstop.
During their days off in April and May, they had worked to put the donated two inch galvanized pipe and fitting together. They had discussed the possibility of using unions to make it solid and unshakeable. But that was too expensive. So they took the time in shop to bore out the threads on one end of each elbow and two sides of the “T” needed for the project. When summer vacation began all the pieces had been assembled, but the structure still needed one last detail: the welding of the loose joints. And none of the crew knew how to weld.
Well, John happened to have a summer job at a steel manufacturing plant in Oakland. With the permission of the owner and foreman, John learned enough welding to get the job done. One Saturday morning, three of the crew drove to the seminary hauling a welding machine and enough welding rods to get the job done.
For most of the afternoon and into the evening, John clung to the pipe and welded while the others pulled and tugged to make sure the pipes were tight. John did not have to worry about the settling darkness because all he had to do was touch the rod to the pipe, anywhere, and he had his own light. But his friends commented on the fact that toward the end of the work session the fireworks were entertaining.
Monday morning, John reported on the work project and showed off the scabs on the burns caused by the almost continual shower of sparks. He had done a pretty good there in the factory when practicing, but had not experience the sparks he made. One of his “teachers” said, “John, what kind of pipe were you welding?” When John answered “galvanized”, his tutor said, “Why did you not tell me this last week? We use a different rod for galvanized pipe. Also, fumes from welding galvanized material are extremely dangerous and sometimes cause extreme lung problems or even death.”
At the end of June the company’s owner approached the four seminarians and asked if any knew how to operate a 16mm camera. He needed someone to go to the Seattle area to take pictures of a construction job. The Company had bid on, and won, a contract to build a bridge over the Narrows just north of Bremerton. This was the first time the Company was attempting to build a bridge over water – a totally different procedure than building overpasses. And he wanted to have a visual history made.
John waited to see if anyone else raised their hands. No one did. So he raised his hand and said, “I am sure I can do it, but I would like to get use the camera.” None of his friends knew of this talent of John. But after shooting three rolls of film over the Fourth of July weekend, John was pretty proficient.
John used many rolls of film but did other jobs for the Company while there. The main difference, and the greatest concern, he found out was the speed of the current through the Narrows. Large barges had to be anchored in place with four sea anchors, one off each corner of the barge. The crane was not anchored in place but had to lift of 70 tons of steel after each anchoring. Three sets of concrete pillars would hold up the span. These were the first to receive their 70 ton hunk of metal. Then the barge was maneuvered to lift the connecting pieces to complete the job of connecting the bridge to both sides of the span.
One time he was standing on the deck of the barge at the front of the crane. The first steel girder connecting a set of pillars to the south bank of the spam had been in the air for thirty minutes. The iron workers were having a difficult time lining up the holes for the bolts. John had been looking up for so long that his neck needed to be moved. He looked down and then called to the crane operator who was more used to neck cramps, got his attention and point down to the deck. The incoming tide had risen more than five feet and was slowing sinking the barge. The operator expertly returned the barge to the position it was in when the lift started. That happened only once.
About ten days after he arrived, John came to work and was greeted with silence. The iron workers’ colorful language no longer filled the air. At the 10:00 coffee break one approached him to apologize for the language they had been using. The night before word had spread that John was a seminarian on his way to priesthood. Most of the men were Catholic and were deeply embarrassed that they had used profanity in his presence. John replied with a statement that he used often in the years ahead, “Oh, it doesn’t bother me. Besides, if I am not here, God still is.” Prudence tightened his vocal cords as he was readying the second part: “If you want to use gutter language and show that that is where you live, that’s up to you. I choose not to.”
With the major lifts completed and recorded, the parallel steel girders were connected. After a few feet of film being used to record the lifting of several small connectors, John found himself with too much time on his hands. So the foreman told him to sit next to the boxes on top of boxes and separate nuts from bolts and place them in separate five gallon buckets. Many was the time when John wished he could find reason to record more, but he sat there basically for eight hours separating nuts from bolts for several days.
The foreman literally had to shake him one afternoon to get his attention, so engrossed was he in his work. The foreman said, “The men need nuts and bolts. Take them some.”
John had a fear of heights; even the climbing of a ladder made his nervous. Just the day before the tug below the bridge had picked up a 30 cup water cooler that one of the men had knocked off the girder. The 30 inch high cooler sat a few feet from where he was working and measured only eight inches high.
But, he picked up two buckets and headed for girder indicated by the foreman. He didn’t hear the laughter as he began his journey and by the time he had traversed half the span the men could no longer laugh.
John took one step onto the 24 inch girder. He swung the two buckets in front of him and placed them on the beam. Without letting go of the handles he stepped over them. He then repeated the process, one step over at a time, for 100 yards.
John doesn’t remember if he joined in the snickering/laughter he met out in the middle or not. But he picked up two empty buckets and casually strolled back to the solid ground he had departed from. By the time he returned to the Bay Area ten days later, he would carry buckets of bolts and other items to the men, walking on even on eight inch girders.
At the beginning of Second College he gave his assent to God’s call to priesthood and looked forward to priestly ministry, but “where” was the question. He had reservations about being a priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. As he walked the walk with his Spiritual Director, he expressed his thoughts about “ministry in rural areas” and “small parishes.” The big cities and mega parishes that dominated the Archdiocese held no appeal. He had entered the seminary in 1954 for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but now the question rose more often in his discussions with his spiritual director of whether he could be ordained for a Diocese that was mostly urban when he felt most comfortable in a rural setting. His birth in rural South Dakota and the summers spent with his Aunt and Uncle in the San Joaquin Valley on their ranch in the central valley town of Gustine continued to challenge his initial commitment to the Archdiocese.