High school seminary led to new lives for three teen boys

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This is the cover of “But Few Are Chosen: A Different Path to Coming of Age” by Michael Connolly, Richard Olive and John Tuohey. The memoir was co-written by three men who detail life in their high school seminary. (CNS photo/courtesy Vandamere Press)

Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The high school seminary as a source of priestly vocations has nearly faded from the U.S. scene.

But for three men, the impact it made on their young lives launched them into adult lives filled with potential and possibility, much of which they’ve accomplished.

Now, more than 50 years after their years at St. John’s Atonement Seminary in the Finger Lakes region of New York, another box can be checked.

Titled “… But Few Are Chosen: A Different Path to Coming of Age,” the book has been jointly written by the three men, now in their mid-70s.

Michael Connolly, Richard Olive and John Tuohey each led what could charitably be called hardscrabble childhoods. The mothers of two of them had died, there were hard-drinking fathers, and there was a lot of trouble that a kid growing up in the Baby Boom years could get into, even if he attended a Catholic school.

But each of the lads was drawn to St. John’s, run by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, at their respective parish’s vocation fairs. The difference between a chaotic home and neighborhood life and the structure of St. John’s was like night and day.

Connolly, who used to fight his way out of any disagreement, became a school principal. Tuohey, belittled by his father for being weak and asthmatic, became a nurse who recently completed a goal of having bicycled in each of the 50 states. Olive, whose life was upended when his pregnant mother died, became a journalist and a union business agent.

“The seminary opened up a parallel universe to us,” Tuohey said. The priests who taught there, he added, became new father figures to him and his compatriots.

None of the three would have been able to identify it as such at the time, but childhoods were scarred.

“He was my best friend,” Tuohey said of Connolly. “He was my best man. I was his best man. He was godfather to my daughter. I’m godfather to one of his sons,” he told Catholic News Service, adding he even moved to Connolly’s native Massachusetts to be able to spend more time with him. “Still, there were things about him in the book that I never knew.”

The friendships ran deep, even when separated by decades.

“We hadn’t seen each other in 52 years, the three of us,” said Olive, who spent much of his adult life on the West Coast, although he once finagled a job at a newspaper in Elmira, New York, to get him closer to the Finger Lakes.

“The idea came up for the reunion at Montour Falls (home to the seminary), a place that was very dear to the three of us,” Olive said. “Arriving at the little farmhouse that we rented, a B&B with our wives, it was quite a reunion. We spent those three days reminiscing in depth, learning things about each other that we never knew, including our own childhood backgrounds, which teenage boys are not likely to discuss.

“At the end of the three-day reunion, we were at breakfast for a sort of our last breakfast together before departing, everybody was assessing what the weekend was like,” he continued.

“It was Mike’s wife — all the wives were remarking that they had never seen their husbands so animated and so loquacious — and Bree, Mike’s wife, said, ‘I came here with a lot of reservations. I really doubted whether I wanted to do this. I had a lot of baggage I was carrying about the church.’ They were from the Boston area and they had been bombarded by the Boston Globe’s coverage (on clerical sex abuse) over the years,” Olive explained.

“But your experience at St. John’s,” Bree told them, “was so different from everything I had perceived, and you guys ought to write a book,”.

Even so, it took six years before the book, published by Vandamere Press in St. Petersburg, Florida, saw the light of day.

All three have made some kind of peace with their past.

“One of the things I tell people is, ‘My father comes across as very insensitive in my part of the story.’ That’s very true. That’s the way it was. I’m telling this story from the perspective of a teenage boy,” Connolly told CNS. “But since that time, I’ve got a better perspective of what he went through.”

“My first wife died when my son was 7 years old, and I raised him for 10 years by myself. My father had three young kids (when he was widowed),” he added. “I was sent to Vietnam as a soldier and when I came back I had a better appreciation of the demons that soldiers bring back with them, and why my father probably drank a lot to deal with those demons” after World War II.

Tuohey said that “…But Few Are Chosen” needs to sell only a few hundred more copies before it starts turning a profit for its publisher. And he’s hoping that will happen for Vandamere Press’ boss, Art Brown. “For him to take a chance on us old guys and publish a book, we’re lucky,” Tuohey said.

The book, which retails for $19.95, can be ordered online at http://vandamere.com/but-few-are-chosen.htm.

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