Paulist Fathers Ponder Future of St. Mary’s on the Lake, Harbor Islands
By Anthony F. Hall
Friday, December 31, 2010
The Paulist Fathers, the Roman Catholic order founded by the 19th century American transcendentalist Isaac Hecker, celebrated its 140th summer on Lake George in 2008.
More than 200 people boarded the Lac du St. Sacrement for a cruise that took them past St. Mary’s on the Lake, the 76 acre retreat on the east side with thousands of feet of undisturbed shoreline, and down the lake to the Harbor Islands, where the Paulists erected a chapel in 1903.
Now, two years later, the leaders of the order are debating how best to preserve those properties for the next 140 years; if, that is, they can be preserved.
On Tuesday, September 14, the order’s new president and its officers met in New York to discuss a proposal that would allow St. Mary’s on the Lake to be used as a campus for local colleges’ environmental studies programs during the school year.
In December, a meeting will be held in Washington to discuss other possibilities, such as selling conservation easements to ensure the properties will remain undeveloped, or permitting weddings to be held at St. Mary’s and even at Harbor Islands.
“The Paulists have not decided what to do, but they have to do something,” said Michael Stafford, a Lake George attorney who serves as the order’s local counsel.
The Paulists’ new president, Father Michael McGarry, took office in May with a mandate to improve the order’s financial condition, said Father Ken McGuire, the director of St. Mary’s.
In a formal statement upon taking office, Father McGarry said, “We will no doubt have to make some painful choices about curtailing ministries in some areas. The most important thing is that the Paulist mission will not become diluted.”
According to Father McGuire, the tenuous state of the order’s finances should come as no surprise.
“We’ve always been a small community,” said McGuire. “At our largest, we had 276 priests; that was in 1976, when Time magazine said we were more influential than the Jesuits, which had 43,000 priests.”
No more than 127 priests now belong to the order, and of those 127, 53 of them are over the age of 70, said McGuire.
Some of them require care for medical conditions, which increases the order’s annual expenses, said McGuire, a spry, fit 80 year-old himself.
Those ranks have not been replenished by younger priests who will manage the order’s operations , such as the Paulist Press, the nation’s foremost publisher of theological works, or The Catholic World, its magazine.
Recruiting new priests is another priority of his administration, Father McGarry said in his inaugural statement.
“On a theoretical level, it is incomprehensible why men in their 20s, 30s and 40s are not entering the Paulist seminary because our mission is so exciting, so challenging and so fulfilling,” he said. “However, you look at the reality and realize the need to address the practical challenges to men entering the seminary,” McGarry said.
Every Paulist priest but one (who died in 1865) has spent at least part of every summer on Lake George, said Father McGuire, who is completing his 48th summer at the lake.
In the past, priests and seminarians tended to come for an entire summer; these days, they come, for the most part, only in August, when forty to fifty people might be in residence.
The days are unstructured; the priests are given three meals a day and encouraged to occupy their time as they see fit.
Some swim, boat and rock on the porch with a book, as anyone would while vacationing on Lake George. Others retreat to the Harbor Islands for privacy and contemplation.
“We have one priest who brings more books with him than clothes,” said McGuire.
Idyllic as it sounds, a vacation on Lake George is not always an easy sell, said McGuire.
“We think of Lake George as a million dollar vacation,” said McGuire. “But some of these modern kids need the cities where it’s daylight 24 hours a day; some can’t swim. A month in the country? My God, you’d think the sky had fallen in!”
Rather than allowing St Mary’s on the Lake to remain vacant in June and July, the Paulists host retreats for priests, nuns and lay people on topics as diverse as religion and quantum physics; peacemaking in the middle east; and dance as a form of meditation.
This past summer, McGuire himself, a cultural anthropologist who spent most of his career teaching at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, led a retreat entitled “Spiritual Discovery through Movies.”
Tuition fees range from $200 to $450 per person, depending upon the length of the retreat, and participants stay on the campus.
The oldest building on the grounds dates to 1875. In addition to a chapel, boat house and cottage, the facilities include two large two-story buildings, the Student House and the Priest House, which contain bedrooms, common rooms and kitchens. The Priest House was designed by Isaac Hecker himself and built with materials of his choice.
According to Father McGuire, he was especially partial to the wood of chestnuts, the tree that once flourished on the shores of Lake George.
Hecker’s bedroom is preserved in a condition very similar to, if not the same as, the state in which it was left after he spent his last summer on the lake, in 1888.
Even if underused, the buildings require maintenance and improvements, and some may need to be replaced, said McGuire.
Asked if the Paulists would ever sell the property, McGuire said, “Over several dead bodies, including my own!”
But, he acknowledged, at least one member of the Paulists’ previous administration had advocated selling the property to raise funds for the order.
“We would only sell it if we were to go bankrupt, and that’s a very, very remote possibility,” said McGuire.
Programs and activities that would make selling the property unncessesary, such as using it for an environmental education center or for weddings, must be scrutinized by attorneys to make certain they don’t compromise St. Mary’s status as a not-for-profit organization, McGuire said.
“We’re meeting with committed, serious members of the Lake George community to weigh these and other options,” said McGuire. “We need to think about what we want to accomplish here during the next hundred years.”
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