Seminary taught spirituality, liturgy and Latin -- sexuality was taboo
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
Many were "cradle Catholics"; others converts. But all had something in common -- a calling to serve God.
They were united as novices at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Mo., a 150-year-old Jesuit institution tucked away in the rolling countryside northwest of St. Louis.
At the peak of the sexual revolution, in the Age of Aquarius and during the height of the Vietnam War, the 26 novices in the classes of 1967 and 1968 spent their days in prayer and meditation, preparing to become priests.
At St. Stanislaus and other seminaries, there were rules: Non quam duo, semper tres. Not in twos, always threes. And the young men were told to avoid "particular friendships."
Beyond that, when it came to sex, there was often only silence.
Just over two decades later, only seven of the 26 in the classes of '67 and '68 had been ordained. Three of those seven had died of AIDS.
Critics say St. Stanislaus represents a missed opportunity to prevent the subsequent spread of AIDS in the priesthood.
"Hardly anybody was prepared to deal with the problematic side of sexuality, because in most seminaries and religious communities, it was a topic not discussed," said the Rev. James Gill, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist.
Church leaders say today they're doing a better job of educating prospective priests about sexuality.
"We go to a number of seminaries, and sexuality is being treated in a much more honest and direct way," said the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment program for priests in Silver Spring, Md. "We talk about sexuality, we try to educate people toward how to be a healthy person, have a positive understanding of their own sexuality and yet also be a celibate."
Rossetti's center conducts one- and two-day sessions on human sexuality.
"Then it's supposedly picked up by the seminary faculty adviser, and they continue to dialogue," he said.
Even so, Rossetti said, people sometimes fail.
"And sometimes when they fail, some of them can come down with AIDS," he said. "And that's a terrible thing."
The lives of the St. Stanislaus novices paralleled those of thousands of others who entered the priesthood during a tumultuous era that reshaped not only American culture but also the Roman Catholic Church.
"It was an incredibly exciting time to be alive, to be young," said the Rev. William Hart McNichols, who entered St. Stanislaus in 1968 and is now a renowned iconographer. "The world was moving so fast then. It was the '60s, and gosh, it was wild."
Yet as the "make love, not war" theme resounded and the Second Vatican Council liberalized some of the church's restrictive policies, seminaries continued to avoid a hidden part of their culture: homosexuality.
A magical place
Posing for class pictures outside the novitiate, the St. Stanislaus novices appeared much younger than their 18 or 19 years. Some looked awkward, even slightly out of place, in their black ankle-length cassocks cinched with rope-like belts.
Bill Dobbels of Olathe sat in the front row of the Class of '67, chubby-cheeked and grinning. Also on that row, a fellow novice from the Kansas City area stared solemnly, a scowl on his face.
In the Class of '68 photo, Pat Arnold, fresh from Regis High School in Denver, stood with his hands at his side. McNichols, who had just finished a year at Colorado State University, sat in front and to the right of Arnold, looking more like a gleeful 12-year-old than age 19.
The four soon would develop lasting friendships. Before long, they would find that they had another common bond. They all were gay.
McNichols had grown up in Denver in a family of prominent politicians. His father was governor of Colorado from 1957 to 1963, and his uncle was a popular Denver mayor. Raised Catholic, young Bill McNichols knew by the time he was 5 that he wanted to be a priest.
He entered St. Stanislaus in the fall of 1968. It was even better than he'd imagined.
"It was very, very magical," McNichols said, "sort of the last of the old seminaries. There was this aura of history of a place being lived in, prayed in, died in."
Later, Arnold -- who also entered in September 1968 -- would describe "St. Stans" in his book, Wildmen, Warriors and Kings:
"I entered the Jesuit order and encountered there a spirituality rich with masculine myth, symbols, and lore. ... We male-bonded in life-long friendships and dreamed of heroic lives in service to Christ, like our forebears."
A typical day at St. Stans began around 5 a.m., when the novices went to "morning visit" at the chapel. After prayer, they returned to their rooms for 45 minutes of private meditation. Throughout the day, they studied Jesuit spirituality, history of the liturgy and Latin.
Twice a week, the novices could listen to music after dinner.
"There was a gigantic renaissance going on," McNichols said. "I remember driving home with Pat in the novitiate van and `Bridge Over Troubled Water' came on, and also `He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.' Those were his two favorite songs.
"And we all just got quiet in the car, because there's a sense of spirituality in both of those songs. And the Doobie Brothers had just done `Jesus is Just Alright With Me.' So over the radio was coming a lot of spirit."
The Rev. Paul Keenan, who grew up in Kansas City and entered St. Stans in September 1967 with Dobbels, said the events occurring throughout the world were shaking the seminaries.
"Just shortly before me, they were real secluded. They spoke Latin all the time, day in and day out," said Keenan, who now is director of radio ministry for the Archdiocese of New York. "By the time we got there, they had loosened some of that up. We had access to TV and radio, stuff like that. We had a lot of fun."
But Joe Kramer, a St. Stans novice in 1965, said lifting some of the restrictions may have had unforeseen consequences.
"Vatican II had just taken place, and everything was changed from `law and authority' to `love,' " Kramer said. "This wasn't a hippie commune, but there certainly was a lot of that element coming in, which allowed people to feel more and open up more. Almost all of us were kids; we were 17, 18, 19 years old. So we weren't very experienced in the world, or in our own emotions."
Or in dealing with their sexuality.
"It was never brought up," Kramer said.
As Kramer grew to know his fellow novices and superiors at St. Stanislaus, he realized that others were gay like him. He tried to avoid the temptations of sex and learned that it was best not to talk about it.
"We used to have this joke, that the fourth vow is that you're not going to come out," he said, referring to the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity that religious orders require priests to take.
By late 1975, Kramer found the struggle between his sexual identity and his commitment to the church too difficult. He took a leave of absence and never returned.
McNichols said Arnold was struggling with an inner conflict as well. His was more complicated.
"Pat had this darkness, a void inside," he said.
Arnold told McNichols that he often felt that God wasn't with him.
"He had nothing but a desire for God, which any spiritual guide will tell you is God. You can't have a desire for God without God. But every time he'd start to feel that God was speaking to him, then he wouldn't believe it. And he'd fall back into the darkness."
McNichols said that both Dobbels and Arnold contemplated leaving the Jesuit order because they were gay.
"There was this huge issue with everybody gay about how you can't be authentic and be in the church," McNichols said. "Which is still the way a lot of people feel."
The two decided to remain Jesuits -- unlike many of their friends.
Over the next decade, two-thirds of the St. Stans novice classes of '67 and '68 would drop out -- some to get married, some to pursue other interests.
`There were just too many'
In 1985, seven years after being ordained, the Rev. Bill Dobbels tested positive for the AIDS virus.
He confided in the Rev. Bill McNichols, who was working at an AIDS hospice in New York City. Before long, McNichols would receive similar news from fellow St. Stans novice Arnold.
McNichols was horrified -- and angry.
"I've seen a lot of cases where people would get it from a partner who they had no idea was at risk," he said. "But Bill and Pat got it way after it was known how you could get it. I couldn't help but think, `What were you doing? How could you possibly get AIDS now, when everybody knows what's dangerous?"
McNichols isn't sure they even knew when they contracted the AIDS virus.
"I just think the bigger thing was why did they take the chance? They both had so much to offer. If they'd have only been more responsible."
In 1987, the fellow St. Stans novice from the Kansas City area -- who had been ordained in the late 1970s -- died of complications from AIDS.
Later in 1987, Dobbels learned that his HIV had developed into full-blown AIDS. He died in December 1990, just three days before Christmas.
McNichols officiated at Dobbels' memorial service. Pat Arnold attended too, his frail body showing the signs of his battle with AIDS.
Arnold had been teaching theology in Berkeley, Calif., until he became too sick. He finally moved back to Denver, where the Jesuits helped care for him.
"People took very good care of him," said the Rev. Edward Kinerk, a 1966 St. Stans novice who later was Arnold's provincial and is now president of Rockhurst University. "The struggle was to get Pat out of living by himself in an apartment and back into a Jesuit community."
McNichols was working in Albuquerque, N.M., in October 1991 when Pat Arnold's mother called from Denver.
His 41-year-old friend was near death. McNichols rushed to Denver to see him. The next morning, Oct. 23, 1991, Arnold's mother called McNichols at his parents' Denver home to say Arnold had died.
"And that's when I started shaking," said McNichols, who had seen many friends -- not all of them priests -- die during his AIDS hospice work. "People understood that this was a good friend, but nobody could know this was the 150th death for me. They didn't understand that there were just too many. I thought I was unraveling.
"I got on a plane and went home. I couldn't even go to his service."
McNichols quit the AIDS ministry.
"And then I began to paint icons."
An effort to change
St. Stanislaus closed on Aug. 18, 1971.
The Juniorate, or Collegiate Seminary, moved to Fusz Memorial near St. Louis University, where seminarians could receive a better program than was possible at St. Stans.
Then the Novitiate, where the novices were trained, was moved to Rockhurst College to avoid having all the seminary training in the St. Louis area.
After that, Jesuit officials decided that the expense of maintaining the huge seminary solely as a retirement home for Jesuits would be too costly. The seminary was put up for sale.
Those who attended St. Stans have fond recollections of their years there. Yet even those closest to the priests who died of AIDS-related illnesses express shock at the number of deaths.
One priest who was a novice in 1962 is dead. So are three from the combined classes of 1967 and 1968, and one from the class of 1968 who quit just shy of ordination.
"That's quite amazing, isn't it?" McNichols said as he looked at old class photos.
Since the deaths, the Jesuits say they have tried harder to help seminarians face sexual issues.
"The Jesuits have made a much more concerted effort to educate our men on sexuality and celibacy and what that means," Kinerk said. "I think we lived in a climate in the '50s and the '40s in the church where you just didn't talk about things."
Because no one closely monitored the deaths -- and others kept quiet -- it's impossible to know whether St. Stanislaus was the exception or the norm.
When told of the AIDS deaths at St. Stans, the Rev. Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit and a vocal proponent of better seminary training on sexual issues, said: "That seems like a very high percentage. But who knows for sure?"
"We could have learned some valuable lessons from those deaths if anyone had been paying attention. But unfortunately, they weren't," Gumbleton added. "They didn't want to know."