From Farmland to Novitiate for Religious Life
Over 1000 Young Men Harvesting Apostolic Endeavors
In March 1957, the La Salette Missionaries, a Catholic religious order, bought 106 acres of farmland on 475 Oak Avenue in Cheshire, Connecticut. The sale included a farmhouse, a barn, a silo, and a ramshackle shed. Today, this campus is "home" for over 90 young men from 15 different countries beginning religious life with the intention of becoming catholic priests. This is the story of how this farmland became a beautiful oasis in the outskirts of Cheshire.
La Salette Catholic High School Seminary reached over 100 students at their Hartford, Connecticut Campus. The place could not afford any longer the many young men knocking at their doors asking to study while discerning a possible priestly vocation. Rev. Ron Gagne, MS, who now lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts, was studying at the High School seminary in Hartford at the time: “I remember that the place was a farm. The fathers bought the property and rented a house on the other side of the road from where Rev. Fred Julien, accompanied by Rev. Frank Falsey and Br. Arthur Michaud, a Missionary Brother, supervised the construction of the new seminary," he says.
On August 15, 1957, Rev. Jean Roux, MS blessed the property and the residence. Assisting him was Rev. Charles Kirby, MS. Roux had come from France as a missionary in 1895 and Kirby was one of the first American students to enter La Salette College in Hartford.
Candy Nesbit is one of the Cheshire residents who has fresh memories of those days. “A lot of my friends back then went to High School at La Salettes’,” she says as she is trying to remember their names.
Gagne also says: “I remember that there was a lot of poison ivy in the woods. The boys would enjoy going around the property and identifying the different types of trees. Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons, we would have work to clean the house and the grounds." After High School, Gagne decided to become a La Salette missionary and join the novitiate in Hartford. He says that the sense of community and family spirit they had, is what made him want to follow religious life in the Order. He went on to become a catholic priest in 1971.
One of the major events still remembered today by the students is the Basketball tournament the School won. The La Salette Missionaries still keep some journals that the students used to make to share with family and friends. In one of them, Mark Jaffee wrote about that day: “Memories do that, they can make us young again, still excited, for example, over that tremendous basketball game in the Yale Payne Whitney Gymnasium in 1964 where our small Seminary High School in Cheshire CT won the Connecticut State Class C Championship.”
And the team captain, Jim Callahan also wrote: “March 13, 1964. Point guard Phil House scored 13 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished out 11 assists to lead the Crusaders to a 62-43 win over Woodbury at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.”
“Jim Callahan was a wizard. All you had to do was get open and he’d get you the ball” wrote Jeffrey Gallahue, one of the team members.
Unfortunately, things took a different path. After over 15 years of ministry, the High School closed its doors in June of 1970 due to a decreasing number of vocations and increasing school expenses.
The Seminary became a School of Christian Leadership and Service, opening its doors to students seeking Catholic Church involvement as active laity. It offered other services such as prayer group meetings, healing services, and professional counseling.
Several locals still have fond memories of those times.
The La Salette fathers would let the neighbors ride around and use the tennis court behind the main building,” says Nesbit. “My father got a part-time job at the La Salette to do maintenance on the building.”
And Dan French says: “I did my confirmation retreat overnight at La Salette’s in 1977. I was participating in St Stephen Parish in Hamden, Connecticut. I still remember the nuns who worked there."
Ron Gagliardi, one of the town historians, says that he knows something few people remember: “The Jaycees got permission to do a “haunted house” in the building in 1973.” He also says: “In 1976 the town used the grounds of La Salette for the Cheshire bicentennial celebration of the country. It was a big celebration.”
Another religious congregation, the Legionaries of Christ, became interested in the property around 1980. The religious order, of Mexican origin, had established a seminary at a house in Woodmont, Connecticut in 1965. From there they moved on to Orange, Connecticut in 1971. It was a house for the first years of the formation of young men who wanted to become priests. The leader of the religious group was Rev. Anthony Bannon LC, born in Dublin, Ireland. He came to the United States in 1976 to help develop the Order: to look for new recruits and for money to pay for their formation.
“We were in constant communication with the Archbishop of Hartford, Mons. John Whealon. He knew that the number of vocations to our religious community was going up,” says Bannon.
The Archdiocese of Hartford was already dealing with the La Salette Missionaries to buy this property for $3.5 million. When Bannon showed the Archbishop the plans for the remodeling of the property in Orange to accommodate the seminarians, the Archbishop himself gave the idea to buy the Cheshire property. It was the fall of 1981.”
Bannon says that he already knew the place because he had visited it before planning on leasing it for a summer camp. “I engaged in conversations for the sale with the La Salette Missionaries during the winter of 1981 and the spring of 1982. We came to an agreement for $ 3 million. I rented the place beginning the Summer of 1982 and the money paid was already part of the down payment. The sale documents were signed in November 1982,” says Bannon.
Thirty-seven young seminarians moved from Orange to Cheshire that summer. Some of them are priests now: Kevin Meehan, Kermit Syren, Peter Hopkins, James Mulford, James Farfaglia, Francis Snell, David Steffy, Gabriel Sotres, Bary O’Toole, Daniel Reynolds, and Richard Gill. “Twenty-five young men came to visit the seminary that summer. Twenty-one of them began the Novitiate. Some of them became priests as well: Jeffrey Bowker, David Chavez, Daniel Long, Dana Lundburg, Arthur Mollenhauer, Steven Reilly, and Walter Shu,” says Bannon.
“When the Legionaries bought the place, they hired my father again and he continued to work for them until 1990,” says Nesbit. She cannot forget a sad moment for the neighbors: “A disappointing turnover was that the new fathers didn’t let the locals use the baseball field anymore. People got upset. People still talk about it. People did not understand what cloister meant for a religious house. Nevertheless, the town enjoys having a seminary in town.” “Little by little the Legionary priests began to help out more in churches and public events and the people began to love the Legionaries,” she says.
Another one of the neighbors, Rich, says: “I have lived here since 2007 and I always enjoy watching the frisbee and soccer tournaments of the seminarians. I am also amazed at how well cut they keep the grass of the front yard.”
The Novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ is celebrating 40 years at their new home. Over 1000 young men have studied there. About 200 of them became priests, and most of the other alumni are trying to make a better world in society as good citizens.
Historical images from the La Salette Photo Archive