Sunday, October 16, 2011

Forgotten Seminaries (Part II): The Jesuits and the "CIA"

A Hidden Mystic

Last month I was at a meeting of theological librarians in NYC, and somehow in conversation one of my colleagues from Fordham University commented that the famed Jesuit anthropologist and writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was buried in the Hudson Valley at what is now the Culinary Institute of America. I was both shocked and puzzled by this, but it soon became clear why Father Teilhard had his final resting place at perhaps one of the most famous cooking schools in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, a Jesuit named Father Purbrick purchased land in the area of Hyde Park, NY--which happens to be in the same area as the Roosevelt family, and FDR's own estate to the north. In 1903, the plan for a Jesuit seminary and novitiate with imposing, yet beautiful structures, came to fruition, and a group of Jesuits from Frederick, MD left their locale behind and went north. The seminary was to become one of the major Jesuit centers in the northeast for more than half a century. Yet by the end of the 1960s, it had
dwindled and the school closed in 1969, selling its property to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The CIA itself now has an impressive food and hospitality library, which was named for Conrad Hilton (see images). But returning to Teilhard: the famed and often controversial Jesuit, who traveled to the far ends of the earth, and who has influenced generations of both the religious and non-religious was buried among his colleagues and co-religionists here, as the school was still an active Jesuit institution. I'd first heard of Teilhard de Chardin about 18 years ago, in college. I had to do a paper on him, but I had no idea how to find his works, because I didn't know how to spell his name! A professor simply said to me "why don't you write about so-and-so." In my college library, the Jewish Studies librarian knew exactly what I was looking for, and pointed me in the right direction. I ended up writing a paper about the mystical elements of Teilhard's writings around omega point and the evolution of spirituality. Though, I haven't revisited much of Teilhardian thought in the subsequent years since that paper, his curious and provocative writings still intrigue. So when my colleague in NYC brought this to my attention about his burial site, I had to check it out. When I went to the Culinary Institute of America, I discovered the cemetery was hidden in a wood behind a parking lot. I had to speak with campus security, who swapped my photo ID for a set of keys to the locked gates of the cemetery. There I went in and in the solitude of the woods, with statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary upon a knoll looking down, I saw Teilhard's grave, from 1955. And still, more than a half century later, there were flowers that had been left recently, on his grave.

So even if this is no more a great Jesuit seminary, but instead a great culinary school, there is still that vestige of an almost forgotten theological institution here...and in the quiet woods behind it.

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