Dear Friends in Christ,
In a previous Notebook essay, I wrote about being at a public high school in Portland, Oregon, James Madison High, for my freshman and sophomore years. I was happy there, where I finally had men teachers, one of whom I especially admired, Mr. Vernon Utz. If he is still alive, I salute him and hope he reads this. He taught us “ESS,” meaning “English and Social Studies,” a combined course at that school. Mr. Utz was an inspiration to me by his enthusiasm, friendliness, humor and availability. After eight years of nuns and laywomen teaching me, good as they were, it was a refreshing transition to have men teachers. There were actually quite a few men teaching at Madison High School when I was there, including those teaching health and PE (physical education), science, language and other subjects. They all seemed to me to be good people.
Also in the earlier Notebook I explained that in high school I was involved in the art and drama departments, and greatly enjoyed both. I pondered the idea of becoming a commercial artist or an actor one day, but nothing actually came of either profession. Decades later, in my thirties, and as a monk, I studied Byzantine iconography in England, Italy and France, under several iconographers, so some of my earlier “artistic bent” did find expression. I no longer write icons, but it was an enriching part of my life thirty-some years ago.
Now back to my sophomore year at Madison High School. I and other students who lived in my part of Portland were informed one day in the spring of 1969 that we would be required to transfer for our junior and senior years to a new high school being built just six blocks from my house, and ironically, two blocks from my grade school of Saint Charles. Since Madison High was some miles from home, a school closer to home couldn’t be beat, or so it would seem.
Eventually some of the administrators and professors of the new school, which was to be called John Adams High School, visited us sophomores as well as freshman at Madison High, who would be transferring to Adams High the fall of 1969. The new school was not going to take seniors for its first year of operation, but only freshmen, sophomores and juniors. We entering juniors would be the first to graduate in the spring of 1971, after our second year at Adams.
The visiting Adams administrators and professors to Madison High came, as I recall, from Harvard University, and their plan was for an “experimental” kind of high school, where classes would be structured quite differently from conventional high school, with a lot of personal initiative on the students’ part, including choosing one’s grades and other oddities, considered at the time “ahead of the times.” This was 1968-1969 and almost anything went back then, as the whole world was going through something of a major shift, with dramatic changes occurring worldwide on many fronts.
Somehow inside myself I resisted the idea of going to the new school, but remaining at Madison High was simply not an option. I am still not sure of all the reasons why I was resisting, but I certainly was. With no precise motive in mind, I decided to volunteer the summer of 1969 at the Archdiocese of Portland Summer Camp, called Camp Howard, where I had gone a few times in the summer, for a week each time, during my grade school years.
I went to Camp Howard as an unpaid volunteer the summer of 1969, when I was sixteen years old, and had asked to be an assistant counselor, which the director of the camp, Father Carl Gimpl, agreed to. I spent a couple of months working at the camp as an assistant counselor, and by the end of the summer the high school seminarians who also worked there had convinced me to attend my junior and senior years of high school with them at Mount Angel Seminary High School, run by Benedictine monks. All expenses for the school came to about one thousand dollars a year, but my having volunteered the summer at the camp was an “automatic” payment by the Archdiocese of Portland.
There was the solution to having to leaving Madison High School, where I was very happy, and also avoiding the new school, John Adams, whose description of structure didn’t appeal to me, despite its being so close to home. The seminary was about forty-five miles from Portland and boarding there would mean a visit home only once a month, over a weekend, and for the longer breaks of Christmas, Easter and the summer months. That appealed to me also, being “out of the house,” but occasionally touching base with the family I loved but didn’t need to see every day.
I would also say that at this time I had drifted away from much active participation in my parish and Church life in general, so why I welcomed the idea of enrolling in a seminary somewhat mystified me, but I wanted to do it, and I now understand it as God’s gentle tug to get me on the right path and ultimately to give all to Christ and the Church. Once again, likely fodder for another Notebook essay!
James Madison High School had an enrollment of several thousand students, and Mount Angel Seminary High School, where I was transitioning to in the fall of 1969, had just eighty or so students. The change was dramatic, but I seemed to go with the flow and by senior year (1970-71) I was student body vice-president. The student body president that year and I still keep in touch. He is a happily married grandfather and I am an abbot.
It is ironic that my paternal grandfather, Elmer Paul Leisy, from a Presbyterian family, grew up on a farm just a few miles from Mount Angel, and his sister Linda still lived in the family farm house in the 1960s and eventually spent her last years at the Benedictine Nursing Home in the town of Mount Angel, run at that time by Benedictine sisters of Queen of Angels Convent in Mount Angel. The Benedictine monastery of monks, called Mount Angel Abbey, and the seminary they ran that I attended was and is “on the hill,” just beyond the town of Mount Angel.
Attending the seminary got me back into church pretty quickly, with daily morning and evening prayers with the other students, as well as Mass each day, and “theology,” (rather than “religion”) as one of the required courses each semester. At the seminary, although definitely restricted by the regime, I did feel somewhat “footloose and fancy free,” to at least be out of the house, where my parents and two siblings, Daniel and Linda, still lived. My older brother, Douglas, had already moved out, leaving as soon as he turned eighteen.
Courses at the Seminary High School were not as easy as the public high school, but my Catholic grade school education came in handy for catching up pretty quickly to my new classmates, just twelve or so of us, at the seminary. We graduated in 1971 and apparently are now preparing for the 50th reunion of the class of ’71 in two years. Tempus fugit.
“The rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio, can wait for another installment of this Notebook.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB