Oak Ridge: A Paulist Retreat

Leaving the small chapel I had attended for twenty years, I held back my tears. It would be a while before I could return to that close-knit community because, quite simply, I could not stomach priests.  I indicted every one of them for the despicable behavour of the catholic clergy. I felt a need to reexamine my faith, but  I did not know where this reexamination would lead me. There was, however, a voice coming from deep within me that I trusted as my guide.

I am a catholic. My mother, raised on a potato farm that straddled the border between Maine and Canada, was Catholic, but she had little regard for priests and nuns. People who grow up on farms are, by nature, pragmatic. But my mother’s disregard for clergy interested me, as  before my father met my mother, he had spent a year or two studying to be a priest at a Paulist novitiate located in northwest New Jersey. Dad always wore a scapula around his neck and over his bed hung a cross of highly polished black wood – but without the figure of Christ on it.  My parents, married in 1933, had five children in the first ten years of marriage, and then in 1954 I came along.  My father was in his sixties during the sixties, the decade I came of age.  On so many of those nights, Dad prevailed at the dinner table lecturing on Teilhard de Chardin.  I was too young to understand what he was talking about, but it was very clear to me that my father saw a new age rising. He was quite excited about it, too. He even bought a pair of bell bottoms for himself. Mom listened to him at times, but tuned out when she felt like it. Mom was good at that. Pragmatic.

When I began this reexamination of my faith, I was also pragmatic and methodical. I sought the advice of a friend, who suggested I look at three books, suggesting one might help me. Of the three, I decided that Practicing Catholic, by James Carroll, best suited my needs.  James Carroll is ten years older than me. His book details his personal journey of faith, in which he was a priest for ten years before leaving  in 1975. He is now married with children and writes for a living. But here’s the thing. In 1965 James Carroll was studying at the same Paulist novitiate where my father had studied in 1930. Carroll explains his choice to be a Paulist was based on the premise that this order was founded to be a two way highway between the American catholic experience and Rome. We Americans are different from others; from my own work with so many other cultures, I know this to be a fact. The Paulists saw this early on, and realized its significance in the Catholic church.  This small piece of knowledge about the Paulists gave me tremendous insight on my father, and why he would have chosen the Paulists, and why, when he left, he went to law school. And why he was so excited during Vatican II, delivering homilies over dinner about Teilhard, and buying himself bell bottoms.

Carroll also made clear why m y father left. Growing up, I was only told that he could not have friends there, so he left.  Carroll explained that  at Oak Ridge, seminarians were not allowed to cross the threshold of another seminarian’s  door, as the hierarchy were so afraid of the young men falling in love with each other.  The young men were constantly observed for behavour that showed too much fondness  toward another seminarian. When Dad left, it was with three others. They pooled their funds, bought a car, and drove to California and back together. Friends. Community.

So, I googled Oak Ridge Novitiate discovering  that it now runs retreats organized  by Paulist priests.   I called and left a message as I had decided that my reexamination of faith would come full circle by retreating to this place where my father had studied. It seemed perfect. Maybe when I left, I would even be done.  Healed, so to speak.

You know, I have heard it said that if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.

It was early on a Sunday morning that my phone rang. It was a youngish sounding man on the phone, with a thick New Jersey accent.  He explained that Oak Ridge was no longer in the business of retreats. In fact, Oak Ridge had been sold to the State of New Jersey, all 1175 acres, for 12 million dollars. New Jersey  was to put the land under its Green Acres initiative which serves as a  refuge for unspoiled pristine acreage in New Jersey . But this young man went on to tell me more.   He had served as the property manager of Oak Ridge, and was the only one left there. He was in the process of cleaning out the houses, loading the furniture onto trucks, and sending the stuff off to other Paulist destinations still in service. He explained that when my father was there , he had lived in the one wooden framed structure that had come with the property in 1923 when it had served as a hunting lodge for some wealthy philanthropist who then donated it – lock stock and barrel – to the Paulists.

Oak Ridge stayed like that till 1961, when vocations were streaming in and new buildings were built.  But then vocations started to slack off, and then, he said, “ the pedophile stuff hit”, and soon, with so few vocations, they went into the retreat business.  He was bitter that the decision to sell the place had been made by one man who had consulted no one else.  He read off to me the list of priests buried in the Oak Ridge cemetery who had also served as veterans. He was heading down there after our phone call to put flags on their graves as it was Memorial Day weekend.  This young priest had spent the better part of Saturday packing up a truck with the last of the stuff from the main house.  That stuff, he told me , was headed up to Lake George, where there is another Paulist retreat house. He gave me the number, and suggested I try there.

He was sad to have to tell me this. I could sense that he loved that place, Oak Ridge. There was a pause, and then he continued.  He told me that there has to be change. He said, in his thick New Jersey accent, “Mrs. Boland, they gotta ordain women. BRING IT ON! They gotta let guys like me get married. And, Mrs. Boland, I am not goin’ back to sayin’ the Mass in Latin; I don’t care WHO tells me to. I’m not goin’ back. We gotta move forward.”

There was more going into the back of that truck than old furniture. Old ideas have also been sent packing. I have given this young  man’s story some thought and I realize that I must move forward, too. The answer is not in going back to Oak Ridge, as sentimental as that journey could have been.  The answer is in my going to Mass.  The answer is in my lifting my voice at Mass in English. The answer is in my holding my husband’s hand as we recite the Our Father, even though we have been told we cannot do this anymore.  The answer is in claiming my faith to be of the people, for we are the church. And the answer is also in forgiveness, which I must find in my heart.  I had indicted every one of them only to find out that  I was wrong.  For it was when I heard this young priest’s voice in Oak Ridge  that I heard the future of my faith.

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