The small hamlet of Barrytown, NY, is bound on one side by the great Hudson river, and lies squarely within the historically rich confines of a once immense land grant owned by the Livingston family, on the eastern shores of the river. For centuries, literally, this land was held by the Livingston family, gradually broken up into smaller parcels. So, in usual fashion, one share of this land went to a Livingston descendent, who decided to build a fine estate. As we find in one Dutchess County local history account about John R. Livingston:
"In 1797 he built a marvelously elegant mansion, called Massena after one of Napoleon's great generals. (Massena House, today part of Unification Seminary, stands on the site of the original 18th-century mansion.) Its central feature was a splendid glass-domed library. Perhaps in later life he had time to read the books in his excellent collection, but for the next 25 years, as in the preceding 25 years, he scrambled for money so fast and furiously that it is hard to imagine him sitting quietly for more than a thumb-through." (Full Article)
That said, he and his descendants lived in the Massena House for the next century, until the death of its last owner around 1903. In fact, there are two images below, which show the Massena House as it looked at the turn of the twentieth century, in an ad for its sale (note there is an expansive lawn from which the image was taken), and another photo, which I took just recently, from inside of the present seminary.
Between 1903 and ca. 1930, the house was owned and inhabited by other parties, of which I have yet not identified. But it is clear that, probably in the late 1920s, the owners of the estate sold the property to the Catholic Church (unless it was acquired by the church at a much earlier time--this would have to be researched further). In 1930, the St. Joseph Juniorate and Novitiate in Barrytown, operated by the Lasallian Christian Brothers, opened. This Novitiate, run by Lasallians (often indicated by FSB
-- Fratres Scholarum Christianarum--after their names), was an educational institution, which ran until 1973, and within two years was sold to another religious organization. The original building structure is still in use, by its successive property owners, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, and was made into the church's seminary.
The day I visited, it was in great part by accident. I had been visiting a nearby town, and was driving near Barrytown. I saw a sign on the road for the Unification Theological Seminary, and had recalled various unclear visions of the so-called "Moonies" (a term which is pejorative, and not used in any positive way), whom I'd come in contact with as a child in the late 70s and early 80s--a time which was probably the height of their Public Relations battles. Nonetheless, I'd always been intrigued by the seminary, which I'd never visited. And so, on this cold winter day, I decided to venture in and see what I could find.
Entering through the front gate--which was now empty, and boasted a cutout of Santa Claus--, I first drove around the estate, which has both paved and dirt roads, and wends through the hilly terrain of the old Livingston estate. Regal barns and other out-buildings still dot the landscape amid oaks, pines, and locust trees, bending down to the earth like old men with canes, who'd been there for countless generations, watching children play and grow in the grassy fields. Coming back toward the front of the seminary, across from the old Massena House, I curiously found a woman and some children doing garden work--in the cold of the December weekend.
I pulled in and parked, and got out to speak with the woman. I asked her about the seminary and if there was a chapel that I could see. She told me to enter a side door, and take a look for myself. So I did. It was still a bit cold inside, and somewhat castle-like. When I finally found where I was going, I discovered a marvelous old chapel, that in some ways had been reduced in size--at least by its chairs. There were no pews, just a few rows of chairs, a grand piano, and some instruments along with sound amplification hardware. Symbolic flags hung from either side of the chapel, and off to the right, in a corner, there was an alter, with a Bible to one side, framed squarely with the famed photo of Rev. and Mrs. Moon--he standing and smiling, she regal in her golden imperial dress.
I walked around a bit more, still rather cold. The sound of youngsters ricocheted through the corridors, and soon I saw a handful of kids, probably between 9 and 15 year olds, running down the hallways and into the chapel. They came in and started playing songs on the piano, as I made my way out. In one hallway, I discovered some display cases of books--"New Arrivals at the UTS Bookstore" a placard read. There were books, but also mugs reading "UTS" on them. Behind another door, which led down an interior hallway, I found a door and a sign that read "Bookstore," but there was no indication that it was open or even operable any longer. Especially since the institution's main facility is now in Manhattan, according to both the people I spoke with at the seminary that day and their website, it seemed likely that the operations of the Barrytown location were winding down.
As I walked around a bit more, this realization became ever more apparent, when I cam upon another display--this one of images accompanied by evocations of religious profession by the Rev. Moon. It showed the Reverend with congregants reliving biblically imagined fishing expeditions in the Hudson River, right off the property to the west, down a slight and rolling hillside. The images are extraordinary, in many ways, not in the least that they convey a time and a place in the religious explorations of the 1970s, that were somehow almost impervious to the mass suspicion that technology and communications of today bring to religious claims. In some ways, that period still allowed myth making or king making or religion making in a way that would be almost impossible today.
The great curiosity of this intriguing band of religionists is still enshrined in this weathered temple of theological education and its surrounding buildings. And four-decade-old remnants are still here to be found, for now--with kind, quiet, and pleasant people living and working here.
From what I understand, the library no longer operates, and the main library and book center, for curricular needs has shifted south to NYC.
Heading out, that morning, I drove around the estate-turned-campus, with a slight sense of melancholy. With a sense that religious institutions have always gone through transitions, but with more issue and trouble in the last hundred years; and even more in the last twenty years. Technology has moved us away from the physical school, the physical realm of education in many ways, to a sphere of all-information, all over the place, all of the time.
We could just imagine some young novices, during the old Lasallian days, wandering from one statue to the next, one station of the cross to the next, in these magnificent old Livingstonian fields, with the warm breeze of spring, and the flight of some robins nearby. Each young learner imbibing the majesty of place and the power of nature.
Now, we might wonder if place even matters any more--at least in our quest for understanding education, especially theological education.