50 Years Ago April 2014
Introduction: Statisticians will describe the people who are interested in your family album or home movies as a small universe. What could be interesting about novices’ experiences fifty years ago? Steven Spielberg will not be making a movie on this topic but someone who was a novice can write a bestseller. I hope someone does. This memory reflects American society in the 1960s, a decade rocked by the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the flower children and Vietnam. There was hope and at the same time an unsettling mood. As far as the Vietnam War was concerned, our society was the most divided since the Civil War. The author who was a Southern racist in September, 1962, had become a civil rights advocate by August, 1964. In late August, 1966, he became a war protester. The author offers some thoughts that will help prevent the US from joining Europe in becoming a churchless society.
Remembering the Pontiac Novitiate
December 1, 2013
But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.
What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s too little of.
There will be peace and good, brotherhood, crystal blue persuasion.
Tommy James and the Shondells
The difficult we do today. The impossible takes a little longer.
Father James Collins, our novice master
In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.
From Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004
The Basilian Fathers operated novitiate at 3990 Giddings Road from 1959 to 1966. It was a beautiful site in a rural area with 80 acres. There was a pond which was a good place to swim and play hockey. On the property’s south edge was Interstate 75. To the Interstate’s immediate south was Mr. Gordon Ekstrom’s farm where he lived with his 90 year old parents. Further north on Giddings Road was a quarry that we called the gravel pits.
The novitiate was in an unincorporated area. Nowadays, the land is in Auburn Hills, a municipality that started on December 31, 1983. In those days, we called it the Pontiac novitiate although the city limits were about two miles away.
Tyron Brown, the Auburn Hills Historical Society president, researched the tax records and offered this information:
The land the Novitiate stood on was approximately 80 acres. The 80 acres of land was previously owned by Minnie Newman. Then for a few years prior to 1957 divided into two 40 acre parcels which were owned by Esther Ratliff and Bernard Orchard Co. The 1958 tax record shows a change of ownership of both 40 acre parcels (equaling the original 80 acres once owned by Minnie Newman) becoming property of the Basilian Fathers of Michigan. 6565 W. Outer Dr Detroit 35 Michigan.
Catholic Central High School was located on 6565 West Outer Drive in those days.
The Basilians also had a novitiate in Canada that probably had a top capacity for 20 novices.
In my freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, I knew I wanted to become a priest. In the Catholic Church, people like me had many options. I chose to join the Basilian Fathers whom I had known as a student at St Thomas High School in Houston. Around early April, 1963, I received my acceptance letter which asked me to “report for duty” (my term which I got from watching war movies) at the Pontiac novitiate on August 2, 1963. A priest at the college recommended staying at least 6 months. With such an important decision like this, his idea made much sense.
I remember that rock and roll songs in spring 1963 as being especially good. There was Peggy March’s I Will Follow Him, several songs by the Four Seasons and others.
As child and as an adult, I was curious about scenes in movies where an art expert would declare a painting as authentic or that it was a forgery. How could they possibly know? Around 1975, I heard a song on the radio and thought this sounds like something from 1964. After the record’s end, the disk jockey identified the group and title, which were completely unknown to me. Then, he said the song was from 1964. I figured out that artists, in paintings or songs, or authors all have a style which is close to a fingerprint or a signature. In the novitiate year, novices did not listen to the radio. This particular song was popular when I did not originally hear it but could recognize the period.
The novitiate year is a combination of a retreat and boot camp. I used the boot camp term for a reason. The novitiate year, the preparation period before taking vows, is not for the faint hearted. There is neither foxhole digging nor military exercises. However, it was a disciplined 16-hour day with meditation, prayer, manual labor, sports, scripture study, Latin and some recreation. There was no television or non-church related newspapers for the novices. We did see President Kennedy’s funeral. The priests brought down a television from their recreation room. I remember seeing several non church related newspapers about this shocking event and aftermath.
We had four priests at the novitiate: Father James Collins, our novice master, Father George Beaune, our assistant novice master, Father Stanley Lynch, our bursar and Father Willie McGee, confessor and gardener. Father Lynch was a classics scholar. I enjoyed his Latin class. I liked Father McGee’s classes on his pastoral experience.
Like the farmers, we started the day early at 5:30 AM but had a break on Sunday starting at 6:30 AM. From Christmas to New Year’s Day and from Easter Sunday to Easter Saturday, we had relaxed schedules, meaning that Latin class and some other activities were suspended.
If you left the novitiate or went on to take vows and eventually left the order and in later years decided to enter the order again, you had to go through the entire novitiate year again. There was no credit for time previously served. Since twelve continuous months is tough, I advocate two six-month periods for future novitiates.
On Thursday afternoons, we were free for four hours to walk to town, buy the toothpaste and other items and to wander through the pleasant countryside. About two miles west of the novitiate on Taylor Road, another novice and I discovered a small observatory. We enjoyed meeting our neighbors and they came by the novitiate one Sunday afternoon to see us.
Also on Taylor Road, there was a corral that apparently had its last use around 1953. Since I did not see bleachers, I surmised that there was no rodeo or entertainment there. I am guessing that the local farmers used the corral as a central gathering point to sell their livestock.
Since I was from Houston, about the only snow I saw was in the movies. I thoroughly enjoyed playing in the snow and learning to play hockey. I previously had the idea that hockey sticks were like baseball bats. I quickly learned how fragile they are.
There was no tobacco or alcoholic drinks for the novices although we could smoke or have alcohol when we became scholastics. In the late 1980s, I realized that I was an alcoholic. Through some effort in a Twelve Step program, I slowly became a recovering alcoholic. During the transition period, I realized that the Baptists have it right: If you do not smoke, gamble or have alcoholic drinks, please do not get started. Tobacco is toxic in all circumstances. Since there are gambling addicts and alcoholics in abundance, seek other ways to relax.
We had different celebrations or festival events during the year. Some novices were far better cooks than I will ever be. I remember St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day. There were others. Mr. Ekstrom, our neighbor, donated half a dozen pumpkins for our Halloween decoration.
We ate about 90% of our meals in silence. We had a simple sign language to ask for salt, pepper, the water or beverage pitcher or a particular bowl. At lunch and dinner, novices would take turns with reading a book or article out loud to the priests and other novices. Sometimes we had publications dealing with social, political or economic themes. I was particularly impressed with Vance Packard’s classic, The Waste Makers.
I and many other novices read the classic Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. We also heard tapes from the same author. As a freshman the year before at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, I quickly discovered that white Northerners acted differently than white Southerners. In about two weeks, I was a changed person. In Atchison, I saw my previous racist attitude as uncouth. In the novitiate, I saw my previous behavior as reprehensible. In the 1960s, the US witnessed a slow social change or even a revolution among white Americans. Our society’s racial integration had become a national goal. Collectively, we white Southerners had turned the corner. Now, there is no going back.
Sometimes I and other novices visited Reverend Boyd Glover at the Church of Christ on North Perry Road. I learned much from talking to him. Since there were more Protestants in the US than Catholics, I took a hard look at Protestantism to relate to our fellow Christians. I liked much of what I saw and on some items, for example, devotion to Mary, the angels and saints, began to see things their way. Many years later, I read Richard Dawkins’ remark that, for Catholics, Mary was a goddess in all but name. He was right about that. I had the idea that people did not become Catholics because they had not taken a good look. After talking to Reverend Glover, I realized with different premises that Protestantism was as logical and compelling as anything we had.
I did not realize it then but I had become a cafeteria Catholic. By January, 1966, I categorically rejected everlasting punishment represented as Hell. The decision was notional and not related to any theological inquiry. You can have a loving Supreme Being or Hell but you could not have both.
In 2003, I learned that it not just liberals who are cafeteria Catholics but conservatives too. I knew two priests who fully supported the war in Iraq even though John Paul II declared the war to be illegal or immoral.
The Basilians paid for our room and board. Novices could leave the novitiate and return to “civilian life” at any time. Our first departure was two days after we started on Friday, August 2, 1963. About 10:30 AM on Sunday, August 4, 1963, his parents came to pick him up. Maybe someone should have informed the Guinness Book. At different times during the year, novices found that the priesthood was not for them. At the novitiate year’s end, those who wanted to go on took annual vows. From this time to ordination, we were known as scholastics.
One novice, Le Richard, from Indianapolis, had a double distinction. He was our only black novice and he started life as a non-Catholic.
The novices were mostly recent high school graduates with some like me who had been in college for a year or more. There were many who had been 1963 graduates from Catholic Central High School in Detroit. Others were graduates from Aquinas Institute in Rochester or St. Thomas High School in Houston. There were a few who never were students in a Basilian school. Nowadays, the Basilians generally require that candidates have a college degree before starting the novitiate.
On some months, Father Collins designated a Sunday afternoon for friends and relatives to visit. I appreciate the Calhoun family driving from Bloomfield Hills to see me. Bill Calhoun and my father worked in industrial paint sales for PPG Industries in Houston from about 1955 to 1959.
President Kennedy was popular. A few months after his inauguration, a Gallup poll showed that 59% voted for him. Since he and Richard Nixon both got a shade less than 50% of the popular vote, this was impossible. People liked him so much that a significant number thought they had actually voted for him too. In our 42 member novitiate class, we had just two conservatives. Since I was a conservative in those days, I was in a lonely crowd when we talked politics. For all my supposed brilliance, I do not think I changed anybody’s mind on anything. I have the idea that most are now voting Republicans while I write commentaries for the Texas Green Party.
Within 2 to 3 weeks, I felt a deep spirituality that is difficult to express today. All the theological teaching that I had in grade school, high school and Benedictine College seemed superficial. Why is it that they did not tell us about the real thing?
Back in the 1960s, they called this aesthetic theology. Now they call it spirituality. I left the Basilians in May 1966 and, with a short career, never developed this any further.
I do not think you can get this going at a retreat house in the big city. You need a connection with nature. In fact, the local, state and federal governments would do well in giving young people the opportunity to have a rural experience.
Churches are modeled on an omnipotent sky god that traditional Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews and perhaps Muslims can be comfortable with. Since Christian membership has been dwindling for many decades, it is time to look at other approaches that go beyond the sky god. Thinking about the Supreme Being the way that mystics do will give a wider dimension but it will take some work to get there.
Father Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange (1877 – 1964) was a theologian who thought that the mystical life was entirely normal for people on the path to holiness. What keeps people from being mystics? A partial answer is that the sky god is easily understood. A Deity with no limitations and whose attributes cannot be defined is much harder to grasp.
Using a pantheistic Supreme Being model yields different behavior than the sky god. Since reality subsides in the Supreme Being, all life is sacred. This message presented in the Bible, the Koran and other sacred scriptures affirm this thought.
How can anyone develop a mystical life?
To connect with anything beyond the everyday hustle, you have to have a long pause. This means a shorter workweek and longer vacations like in west Europe. Steven Covey asks when you are headed to the hospice or to the hospital for the last time if we are going think to ourselves, “I should have spent more time at the office.” It is good to go away to a pretty place like the Kerrville Texas area. Since that cannot happen very often, I recommend making a major effort to make our cities more attractive through more green space, park development and landscaping. Since Harris County and Houston are attracting more people, possibly two million more by 2035, the voters and local governments are in the position to insist on energy efficient architectural codes and land conservancies for developers. Preserve what habitat is left and enhance our few open spaces into something special.
For a step at deep spirituality, take some extended time off for a long retreat. I proposed to the monks at Benedictine Abbey in Atchison, Kansas to offer long retreats to help recruitment for the abbey or to instill a deep life for those who have no intention to join the religious life. This would most easily fit young or retired people.
One of the things that I look forward to, when I visit the abbey, is going on the River Road in Atchison where I can see the bluffs in their fall colors. Also, the scenery on highway 45 between Weston and the Atchison turn are something to behold. I plan my visits for late October to see Kansas City and Atchison at their peak beauty period. When I am lucky, I see the brilliant fall colors.
Benedictine Abbey in north Atchison and the sister’s convent in south Atchison would be great places to stay for Christian men and women. The atmosphere probably would not be an easy fit for Muslims and Jews.
However, there are non-denominational retreat centers such as the Loose Leaf Hollow in Bardstown, Kentucky, where everyone would be comfortable.
There are some approaches offered by Kabbalah, a mystical theory that Jewish rabbis developed during the Middle Ages that is popular today among non–Jews. There may be many other worthwhile approaches.
The popular self-help books are helpful in getting along with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors and offer paths to serenity. However, there only go to “cash register honesty.” Slave owners and SS guards in the death camps could read them and not change their behavior to the inmates one bit.
For something deeper, go to Mr. Google and punch in “spirituality,” “mysticism,” or “meditation.” When you see that life on our precious planet is interconnected and that the status quo stinks, you are on to something. You will have a pantheistic view for the Supreme Being or close to it. When you start taking efforts to abolish war and poverty, you have found the goals that the late Viktor Frankl was possibly pointing to in his Man’s Search for Meaning. With 3 billion poor people, 21,000 nuclear weapons and global warming, what do we do now?
Increased church attendance alone will only have a marginal effect on human behavior. In 1963, Father George Beaune said that people could go to church on Sunday and go to Hell for what they do on Monday. Many Nazis and Holocaust perpetrators were regular church goers. God-fearing Southern Christians could lynch black people on Sunday and not be bothered at all. European colonial powers would routinely massacre innocent men, women and children and not give this a second thought. In the First Crusade, Catholic soldiers killed every Muslim and Jewish person in Jerusalem. The Pope never issued a reprimand or an excommunication for this atrocity.
Considering the behavior described above, I say that good deeds trump faith. Considering that fervent believers in the US could kill Indians, steal their land and not have a minute’s remorse, faith alone can be totally worthless.
The Twelve Step programs, a movement with religious overtones, need a least one more step to be complete. The churches and the Jewish communities need one more commandment. The Twelve Step programs must be flexible enough to accomplish this. After all, Alcoholics Anonymous started with six steps. Six more steps came later. It is not enough to be free from drugs or alcohol. I ask you to develop concern for human beings, animals and plants outside our immediate circle. The churches started with Ten Commandments. This is reflected in proposed Step 13 and the 11th commandment:
We developed a social and environmental conscience.
You shall develop a social and environmental conscience.
Adopting Step 13 in Twelve Step programs and the eleventh commandment for churches and synagogues would require the highest ethical and environmental standards for our society and the world. It would mean seeking non-violent solutions first, seeking an end to violence in families, neighborhoods, prisons and nations.
The Second Vatican Council was occurring during the novitiate year. It was an exciting time to be a Catholic. My novitiate class marked the highest novice number ever achieved. Shortly after, fewer young men applied to be novices, many scholastics like me left and some priests left. Since the priesthood is an endangered species, I recommend ordaining women and married people. Learn from the Protestants, the Orthodox and the Jews. Otherwise, start shopping around for a Lutheran or Episcopalian church near you. Also, incorporate current thought and not follow Europe in evolving into a churchless society. Otherwise, you have to ignore scientific thought, that the world is 5,000 years old, evolution is only a theory, the Sun revolves around the Earth and humans have nothing to do with global warming. Then, wonder why people cannot relate to church teachings.
I took vows on August 15, 1964 and never returned to Pontiac. If I had any idea about the area’s fate (urbanization), I would have contacted the governor, the Pontiac mayor and others to make the Giddings Road area north of North Perry Road into a state park. What I urge now is a massive forestation effort in the US and everywhere else.
When I left the Basilians in May 1966, I had several options open. Since I enjoyed meeting Detroit novices, their families, the priests and scholastics in the area, I considered teaching high school in Detroit and graduate studies at the University of Detroit. That never happened but it could have.
Enjoy every day that you have. We experience life in a linear manner with no second opportunities. I wish that I could go back to different days in my life to live them again. They could be just regular days with nothing special. It did not have to be the happiest days or certainly not when I was unemployed or going through a difficult time. Hopefully, someone will make a fantasy or science fiction movie on this theme. We have our memories. When I visited Kansas City in the 1980s and 1990s, I made a special effort to see my oldest relatives because any particular visit could be the last. The old relatives have passed away and now I am in the old relatives group. Tell people that you appreciate them when they are still alive and not wait for the funeral. If someone has done some good things for your neighborhood, school, city, church or environmental group, name a building, street or park after them while they are still alive.
To the novices and Pontiac area residents, I am happy that I could share a common experience with you. Since I live outside the US and am 69 years old, I anticipate seeing only a few in my remaining years. This commentary is a way to say thank you and not wait to tell your relatives and friends in a condolence letter.
The novitiate started in June 1959 with Fr. Greskoviak as the Novice Master. The Basilians closed the facility in 1966 and moved the novitiate to Erindale, Ontario with Fr. Tony Lococo as Novice Master. It is hard to believe but the novitiate only operated for 7 full years.
Natalie Kilmer Randall in Pontiac Township 1827-1983 End of an Era described the property’s new purpose:
About 1966 it became a retreat center for high school students. Between 1969-1970 it also became a Christian Renewal Center for Christian Adults. The building was used by non-profit organizations, mostly churches, as a place for retreats and seminars.
During the week those using the facility were mostly groups of high school students for one-day retreats. Weekend usage was generally confined to church groups for a variety of purposes. Programs given at the center included marriage encounters: engaged encounters, seminars for the divorced and separated, seminars for the widowed: seminars for women and seminars about alcohol abuse.
Individual retreats of a few days were offered by special arrangement.
The building included two conference rooms, a dining facility, a recreation room, and overnight accommodations for 52 persons.
The facility was under the direction of the Reverend John Gaughan.
The Auburn Hills Community Center used the building for a while. The building remained standing until 2001. The building was torn down in 2001 when KSPG Holding USA INC purchased the land and building from Pinnacle Auburn Hills LLC. Today the building site is vacant land. The City of Auburn Hills Tax Office informed me that the original property is subdivided with Jabil Circuit as the owner. The address is now 3800 Giddings Road. With a Google search, I found that the company, started in Michigan in 1966, offers diversified manufacturing services in 60 countries.
About ten years ago, former Basilians like me organized an alumni group (Association of Former Basilians). Former and current Basilians and have reunions and raise money for some projects.
In all, it was demanding and happy experience. There were three years in my life that were a light year apart from any other time. One year was in the novitiate. The second two were when I was teaching in Colombia, South America.
To those thinking about becoming a minister, rabbi, priest, brother or sister, follow your dream. It will be a different experience no matter if you stay on or not. You will be able to happily say, “Been there. Done that”.
Remembering Bob Hope, I say thank you for the memories.
Ed O’Rourke was at Saint Basil’s Novitiate from August, 1963 to August, 1964 and a scholastic (student for the priesthood) at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston for two years. He is now a retired certified public accountant living Medellin, Colombia. He writes articles on global warming and war abolition.
I am grateful to Tyson Brown, Auburn Hills Historical Society’s President, for contributing material for this memory. The society’s web pages are embedded within the City of Auburn Hills’ web site. The easiest way to see old photos and stories is to go to Google and press “Auburn Hills Historical Society.”
If you do wish to purchase the Auburn Hills History Book “Pontiac Township, 1827-1983: The end of an era” they are available through the AHHS for $10 plus $3 shipping check made payable to Auburn Hills Historical Society and mail to 3400 E Seyburn Dr., Auburn Hills, MI 48326. (If you live outside the US, the postage will be about $13.)
The Auburn Hills Tax Office indentified the novitiate site’s current owners.
Father David Katulski, the Vicar General for the Basilians, furnished material for this memory. He was also in my novitiate class.
My cousin, Dennis Feighny, Topeka, Kansas resident, asked for more detail on the spirituality. These thoughts are easier to feel than to convey. All life is interconnected, human beings, animals and plants on a fragile planet. We survive together or not at all. I took a stab at explaining more but it would take another article about this long to do a good job.
My original idea was a text about 5 pages long. In remembering those days, my memory and enthusiasm grew. Reviewers offered material and recommended additional coverage. In some ways, it was like going back 50 years. In a way, it was.