For Deacon Rick Lapierre and his cohorts, their years at St. John’s Atonement Seminary didn’t end in priestly ordination but nonetheless paved the way toward valuable vocations.
“Most of us went into people-oriented occupations. That was that Franciscan formation — you really learned to care about other people,” said Deacon Lapierre, who noted that his fellow seminarians have gone to thrive in such careers as social work, psychotherapy, teaching, sales, firefighting, police duty and emergency-medical services.
Deacon Lapierre served as an organizer for a major reunion held June 15-17 at the former minor seminary in Montour Falls, Schuyler County. The large brick building, located at the end of College Street at the village’s southern entrance, has housed the New York State Fire Academy since 1973, two years after the seminary closed.
Reunion attendees included nine of the 21 graduates from 1967 celebrating their 40th anniversary, along with many other men who attended St. John’s Atonement during its short 16-year history. The event drew participants from as far away as Alaska, California and Prince Edward Island; many were returning to Montour Falls for the first time since their seminary days.
“It’s more than your typical reunion because we lived together; you saw each other a lot more. We were tight, we really were family. At reunions they’ll hug each other and call each other brother, even though they haven’t seen each other in years,” Deacon Lapierre observed.
Weekend highlights included a Saturday-evening dinner with 59 participants, and a Sunday-morning Mass in the chapel which now serves as a storeroom for the fire academy. Religious symbols remain on that room’s walls, and the marble floor still displays the Society of the Atonement emblem.
St. John’s Atonement opened in 1955, shortly after the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement — more popularly known as the Graymoor Friars — purchased the former Cook’s Academy and converted it into a minor seminary.
Seminarians lived a semicloistered existence. Deacon Lapierre noted that they were allowed to go to a nearby park on Wednesday afternoons, and the big outing was a three-mile walk into Watkins Glen once a year on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). Deacon Lapierre recalled that each seminarian was given a quarter for this excursion, and that he once found some extra money in a pay phone during the trip.
“I splurged on a milk shake,” he said.
High respect was held among the seminarians for such faculty as Father William Schmidt, SA, who celebrated the reunion’s closing Mass on June 17. Deacon Lapierre noted that Father Schmidt — who was the freshman prefect for the class of 1967 and is now a parish priest in Virginia — “is fondly remembered by the class as the one who helped them with homesickness, study problems and a host of other issues that 14-year-olds living away from home for the first time faced.”
Ultimately, requirements to become a Franciscan priest — four years of minor seminary, a one-year novitiate, four years of major seminary and the lifetime commitment that followed — proved too daunting for Deacon Lapierre and his classmates. He left the seminary in 1966, and out of the 21 young men in his class who did graduate the following year, none went on to be priests.
“For the last year and a half there, I felt like my shoes were on the wrong feet. I realized God wasn’t calling me to priesthood,” he said. “Then I got married and had children. Maybe this was what God was calling me to do.”
Deacon Lapierre, who turned 58 on July 6, was ordained a permanent deacon in 1994 for the Providence Diocese. He now serves as parish deacon at Our Lady of Good Help Church in Mapleville, R.I., and just retired this past year as head of emergency-medical services at Brown University. He has attended past seminary reunions and is already looking forward to the 45th in 2012, so he can once again embrace memories of some very special years.
“It was the ‘Me Generation,’ but that wasn’t our experience. We had friars who really cared about us,” Deacon Lapierre said. “What we experienced really carried into our adult lives.”