A Visit to the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter’s Seminary in Denton, Nebraska
By Patrick Michael Clark
God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses, Moses.”
And he said, “Here am I.” And He said, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”
In the early spring the Great Plains are dry. The tall grasses and scattered knobs of earth that make up the vast expanses in the center of the American continent are a dull brown, with only rust-colored farmsteads and silos to break up the endless sky. Soon the life-giving rains will come and bring a miraculous green but for the time the deep-planted roots are simply waiting.
The airport just outside Nebraska’s capital is a simple place, just two terminals and a strip of asphalt at the entrance for the idle cab. Jackson saw a white hatchback waiting at the end of the line with its signals on and started walking.
They drove for half an hour, the young man behind the wheel intently watching the road that led past quiet farms wrapped in barbed wire. Jackson watched the strange empty land around him pass by. He asked his driver if Nebraska was different from what he had known growing up.
“It’s practically the other side of the world,” the other young man said. They were in the same boat then.
Soon they were down a winding private road. Beyond a small thicket sitting atop a gently rising hill was a large beige and copper-colored building, four stories against the empty sky, with a grand basilica dominating one end.
Once inside his companion said he had duties to attend to, but Jackson was soon greeted by Mr. Geoffrey, the man who kept the keys and made arrangements for travelers.
Lodgings would be in the general dormitory. Mr. Geoffrey led Jackson to his room, simply furnished but comfortable, and with the same surreal quiet as the halls. Once he had put his things away Jackson went to look around.
The Seminary was an intricate maze within stone walls and Romanesque arches. He found the chapel, the long basilica church he had seen coming up the road. It was as large and gilded as any of the grand churches he had seen in Baltimore or Philadelphia, with altars about the walls and intricate stained glass in the rounded windows.
There were a few black-robed priests and seminarians in the tall choir praying silently. One finished his meditations and approached Jackson, who was craning his neck to look at a pair of stone angels in a niche.
“Have you heard Mass today?” asked the seminarian.
“No, just got in from the airport.”
“Well I’ll tell the Rector and you can go to his daily Mass. It’s in the chapel over there in five minutes.”
The Rector was a tall man with an Old World disposition. Jackson was disappointed there wasn’t a sermon at the Mass, but he was surprised to hear some of the usually silent prayers, as he was the only one in the small side chapel dedicated to Joseph the Worker. The saint himself looked down from a window above the Rector’s balding head. Jackson wondered about the Josephs who had built this church.
After Mass he met another visitor, a traveler from Georgia, and was strangely happy to meet someone else from the South. But the Georgian soon corrected him for carelessly saying hallelujah.
“Nobody says that here, at least not in Lent. It’s the a-word or h-word until Easter.”
Jackson thought that sounded sensible.
Later the entire school gathered in the refectory for a feast, as it was the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, the blessed scholar who was so fat that his Dominican brothers had to cut an indentation into the table for him. There were at least fifty seminarians, plus the priests and other staff at their long table at the end of the hall. Jackson sat at a table with a group of students, some in cassocks and some in plainclothes.
“Where are you from?” asked one of his neighbors, a short deacon with a thin face.
“Virginia,” Jackson replied.
“Anywhere near Washington?” said one of the young men in plainclothes. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen.
“Nope. I’m from the Shenandoah Valley. Up in the mountains.”
“So you live in a holler or something?” asked the Deacon.
“Nothing that exciting,” said Jackson drinking his beer from a water glass. Beer was very important to the Seminary and was changed seasonally. Everyone also had a helping of pan-cake, which had nothing to do with breakfast, as it was really cake baked in a pan.
There would be some entertainment that night, a Socratic debate in honor of Aquinas. It was won almost singlehandedly by a second-year seminarian that calmly invoked examples from Tolkien. His opponent, when he knew he was unable to win, demanded him to confess to being a vampire and sleeping a coffin. The refectory shook with laughter and the point was conceded.
The next few days were made up of class, study, and the singing of the Divine Office. There would be daily Mass beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Chapel and afterwards Jackson would join the seminarians for class. He enjoyed the Music and Spirituality courses, and took copious notes during Catechism instruction.
The students took recreation for two hours in the afternoon and Jackson went walking along the grounds of the Seminary. He went along the site of a future orchard and back around the basilica. A high wind drove him into a cluster of trees below a short hill, when he heard something strange.
It was definitely pipes, and sure enough, a hearty man in gray running clothes was playing a set of bagpipes along a dry creek. After he had finished playing the strains of The Minstrel Boy the two talked about the strangeness of the Great Plains and roots music, which shares so much in richness with traditional sacred music, as well as what the Seminary was trying to achieve.
“It’s really a place of peace,” the piper said.
That night at Compline, Jackson listened to the seminarians chant the psaltery in Latin and thought of how truly peaceful it was within the Seminary walls. The wars they prayed for an end to seemed another universe away, and even the distant light atop the State Capitol in the city beyond seemed a lifetime apart from the dormitory window.
On his last day at the Seminary he accompanied one of the priests, the dry and soft-spoken Spirituality instructor, and a group of the fifteen or so first-years on a walk. They passed a small pond which supposedly contained a dozen snapping turtles and went along the hillside around the back of the school.
As they walked Jackson noticed there was a patch of burned up ground nearby. He turned to the priest and asked, “Was there a brushfire here?”
“Oh we burned some trash the other day,” he replied.
The group kept walking, but Jackson stopped for a moment alone. He saw a couple pieces of charred paper caught in some grass near the fire site. He wondered what sort of things had been committed to the flames.
Then he saw something he’d never thought possible. Growing from blackened ground, amid the remnants of whatever had been burned, was a flower. A single iris. A bloom of color that had managed to come up from the seemingly dead earth. Jackson thought he’d pick it, but he saw that the group was further off and left it be.
He turned to go and looked up at the basilica against the deep orange sky. The sun was setting and he could hear the steeple bells ringing the call to prayer.
Patrick Michael Clark is a published writer and produced dramatist. A recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, he lives in Richmond, Virginia where he contributes to various local publications and serves as editor of Trouble Come Home, an independent literary publication. His writings have been published in Regina Magazine and Quail Bell Magazine, with his original adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive receiving its premiere in Richmond in April 2014. He is currently working on a narrative piece for the Jonestown Report Bulletin to be published in 2015. Visit him if you like at his website.