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Influence of the Marist Brothers

Housing for Marist Brothers

In some respects, housing for Brother students at Marist College followed a pattern similar to housing for lay students. But it also must be studied in the perspective of training systems for candidates to the brotherhood, the priesthood, or the sisterhood.

The Marist Brothers were founded in 1817 in southern France, an area which had been neglected since before the French Revolution. In particular the educational system was almost nonexistent for rural areas. Elementary education was not mandatory for French boys and girls until 1870.

Father (now Saint) Champagnat was among a group of priests who attended the seminary at Lyons and determined to band together for mutual support, even though they would be assigned to different parishes in the Lyons diocese. Since Champagnat was reared in rural area, he was assigned to Lavalla, a small parish on the hills southwest of the city of Lyons. A determining moment in his life was when he was asked to give the last rites of the Church to a sixteen year old boy who had never heard of God. Champagnat pleaded with the Marist group to institute educational programs; their response was that they were already overburdened with routine parish duties; if he believed so much in education, he ought to found a group himself.

Champagnat was a delayed student, which he discovered when he was placed in classes with city boys five or six years younger than himself. All his life he carried high esteem for education for all, believing that without some education, growth in spiritual and religious life would be stunted or non-existent. So he founded the Brothers himself on January 2, 1817.

The prevalent opinion among the clergy as well as the laity was that Brothers and Sisters were not as well educated as priests. Thus they were relegated to teaching elementary schools, with the priests founding secondary schools because they were better educated.

The Brothers came to the United States after they came to Canada, where the authorities saw a neat convergence for Brothers from a rural area in France to teach in the elementary schools throughout rural, French-speaking Canada. (For background, see Brother Leonard Voegtle's book on the history of the Canadian and United States provinces.) The Brothers came to New York City to teach in the French influenced St. Jean Baptiste parish elementary school which extended from the first through sixth grades. Soon they were asked to open a boarding school which accepted seventh and eighth grade pupils. This was termed an academy. Meanwhile Brothers from the Canadian province came south through Maine and New England, especially to service French-speaking immigrants from Canada drawn to working in the mills of Massachusetts.

When Brothers' apostolate extends into another country, efforts are made to recruit candidates from that country. The Brothers in the United States experienced little success in this respect because teen age candidates were sent into French speaking Canada near the city of Quebec for their secondary school and novitiate. The authorities recognized that it was imperative to establish a recruiting and training system which served the United States separately. Since Brothers coming to Canada often landed at New York City first, a natural location for a central house would be along the Hudson River, with the railroad stretching from New York City to Montreal.

One important element of recruiting candidates was to maintain contact with them after their normal connection (teacher-student) was interrupted. Since most Brothers taught in elementary schools, and the Novitiate was for men 16 or older, a bridge had to be developed. This became secondary schools (called Juniorates) devoted to young men who had shown an interest in the brotherhood. Even though most of the youngsters attending the schools might not become brothers, it did provide the connecting link. With the shift of Brothers' work to secondary schools the link changed. By 1948 students were not accepted to the juniorate until after freshman year of high school. This was gradually increased, to the point now where candidates to the Brothers are expected to have completed their college education.

After viewing several other sites, the Brothers purchased land in Poughkeepsie NY. This site became the central house for the United States. Candidates would come to Poughkeepsie to complete their high school, then enter into a two year period of religious training (the first year called Postulancy, the second Novitiate.) Upon completion of the Novitiate, many Brothers were assigned to manual tasks for one or several years. They then moved to New York City to take college courses at Fordham University. This pattern lasted until the middle 1920s. The Brothers decided to establish a junior college in Poughkeepsie, which became a reality in 1930 with approval by the New York State Board of Regents. The plan was for those completing their Novitiate to spend two years in Poughkeepsie, then moving to other houses to complete their college degrees part time.

By this time the Marist property in Poughkeepsie, now called Saint Ann's Hermitage, could be thought of as three logical divisions. The space above the water works road became the Juniorate where aspirants would complete their high school work. The space at the southern end, using the old Bech mansion, became the Novitiate, and the space between, including the gatehouse and Greystone was reserved for the college students. Earlier writing refer to this as central.

An important word in the name of the property was Hermitage. Named after the first mother house in France (Notre Dame de l'Hermitage), the word epitomized the thinking of the time that candidates for religious life ought to separate themselves from the world. Upon acceptance as novices they were given a new name. They looked to the central house as the place where they trained, where they returned for summer courses and retreats, where they retired when too old, and where they would be buried. The separation was reinforced by construction of a long cinder block wall along the length of route 9.

The separation was not one-sided. Individuals on the outside of the wall often looked with distrust at the persons behind the wall. Until the election of John F Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, to the presidency, many in the United States harbored negative feelings about Catholics. A concrete example of this occurred in Poughkeepsie, where the Ku Klux Klan burned cross outside the Brothers' property.

The period 1930 through 1942 saw the scholasticate housed in buildings in central. Greystone became a library and laboratory, a wooden building adjacent to it called Marian housed classrooms and a small dormitory (called the pullman because the stations were separated by curtains, not walls).The Juniorate was also the location of the Brothers infirmary, the farming brothers and other workers. It soon became overcrowded. In 1942, the Brothers purchased part of the Payne Estate in Esopus and moved the secondary school to that location. This freed up the dormitory space in the MacPherson building for use by the student brothers; MacPherson also housed dining facility and the chapel.The Marian building was used solely for college purposes.

In 1943, the Provincial authorities appointed Brother Paul Ambrose Fontaine as Master of Scholastics. He was given the mandate to move the status of the Scholasticate from a two year college to bachelor granting institution. He accomplished this, gaining a provisional charter for Marian College in 1946 and the permanent charter in 1950. Student completed their baccalaureate in three years and three summers. By 1950 the Novitiate has been relocated to Tyngsboro, so the entire Poughkeepsie property was dedicated to the college.

The Brothers recognized that many of the buildings were in poor condition, and set about constructing replacements. Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel was opened by 1953. when His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellman came to the dedication of the chapel, he was appalled at the condition of the McPherson building; there had been a disastrous fire in Chicago, and the Cardinal wanted no repeat in Poughkeepsie. The finances prevented immediate replacement of all facilities. A larger building was constructed west of the Chapel which provided space for dining and kitchen and group study hall for the Brothers. This was completed by 1956. Then a separate dormitory of three floors, each housing 40 Brothers was finished by 1957.

All this construction followed the historic pattern. Classes were held together, dormitories were common spaces, not private rooms, prayers were all together in the new Chapel.

 Evolution of Marist College Housing

Original plans for Marist College called for commuting students only except for the Marist Brothers who were completing their training to teach in Marist Schools. When Richard Foy became President, Brothers John Malachy Hoffman and Daniel Kirk showed him the results of a survey they had conducted in all Catholic grammar schools and secondary schools within a fifty mile radius; these predicted that there was not enough of a pool of potential students to reach even the planned cohort of 600 commuting lay students.

Foy authorized seeking a limited number of non-commuting students. By Fall 1959 ten such students had enrolled at Marist College. They were initially housed at the Kings Court Hotel on Cannon Street in the city of Poughkeepsie. The arrangements were unsatisfactory for both the hotel and the students. By January 1960 the students moved on campus to a bungalow which previously had been used for housing novices in training for the Marist Brothers. This bungalow was behind the original Novitiate building on the Bech property (near where the road to the McCann Athletic Center merges into the parking lot). The resident students were fed by the student brothers' kitchen in a separate room in the original Fontaine Building located behind the present chapel.

The Donnelly building was then under construction and would have space for uses other than classrooms for several years. Two floors at the southern end were set aside for dormitory rooms, with four students to a room. A cafeteria was installed in the lower floor.

Meanwhile, the College applied for HHFA loans to build a separate permanent building. Architect Donald Lane drew up plans for a building to house 120 students. Three were planned, but only the first was funded by the HHFA. The three were planned for what is now the McCann Baseball Field. When the site proved unsuitable for foundation work, the dormitory named Sheahan Dormitory was shifted to a rock cliff over the railroad with excellent views of the Hudson. This building was the first approved by the HHFA for construction with sheet rock walls instead of the cinder block walls normally used for dormitories constructed after the second World War. The college had to solicit bids for both cinder block and sheet rock; when the latter came in lower, the HHFA approved the change.

In other ways the dormitory was in the style common throughout the US at the time. The boring effect of the long corridor was alleviated somewhat by Mrs. Evelyn Fisher, then the design consultant for the College, who painted the rooms different colors. When the doors were left open, this created a rainbow effect in the main corridors.

As the Sheahan dormitory was constructed for well under the planned budget, the HHFA approved the College plans for a larger dormitory for 300 students, housed on six floors of 50 students each. The style of the Leo Dormitory still continued the pattern of post World War 2 construction, with the exception of sheet rock walls instead of cinder block.

The long range plan for Marist had changed from a total of 600 students to 1500 students: 100 Student Brothers, 900 residential students, and 500 commuting students. This led to a design of a larger dormitory building. About this time, a group of faculty and administrators visited Michigan State University, which had gained a reputation for innovative student housing. The research at Michigan State indicated that a college student rarely made close acquaintance with more than two dozen students during four years at college. The design of champagnat Dormitory reflected this, as it logically can be thought of as separate dormitories stacked over each other. The students were planned two to a room, but in smaller groupings of 24 students separated by a common room. Two floors were joined to a two story common room, so groupings might be constructed of 24, 48 or 96 students. The College applied for financing through the New York State Dormitory Authority because the HHFA would approve only living and dining spaces; Marist wanted to include classroom space and a theater. The initial Champagnat complex was opened by Summer 1966. It freed up the space in Donnelly Hall for academic uses.

These dormitory arrangements remained in force during the 1960s and 1970s. One exception was the addition of the Gregory and Benoit houses on the (then) north campus, each housing 32 students. Originally designed for use by the student brothers, they soon were converted into regular housing and were occupied by groups which presented various themes for living together.

In the mid 1970s, I visited Stonehill College in Massachusetts en route to a summer vacation at Cape Cod. This college, operated by the same order which operates Notre Dame University at South Bend, was founded about the same time as Marist, but was better funded by its founders. It developed some common dormitories, but soon switched to apartment style housing. This supported a progressive system of housing: entering students would begin in the older style dormitories, make friends there, and then assemble into smaller groups to apply for the smaller apartment housing constructed in phase two.

This progressive style fits nicely with the changing backgrounds of incoming students. In earlier years, students often lived two or three to a room at home, and the transition to two-in-a-room was easy. Nowadays most incoming students live in their own rooms; transitioning to two-in-a-room is problematical for some, as it requires adjustment the to needs, customs and styles of others. Small group living in later years at college reinforces patterns of congenial groups of moderate size.

With the growth of the college to 4000+ students, all future housing on the north campus and east campus is apartment style. The most recent housing complex consists of rooms for singles.

Changing Times

The decade of the 1960s instituted significant changes in how candidates ought to be trained, with emphasis on small grouping rather than large. Coupled with the changes emanating from Vatican II Council and the changes in American society, the period can only be viewed as on of turbulence, but also of hope. One signal of this was a change of governance of the Scholasticate. Before this, the Master of Scholastics was assisted by one part time faculty member. The new arrangement consisted of five faculty members, each relating to 24 student Brothers. While still limited to full change by the more recent construction activity, certain experiments were established at small group living. One group moved into a house at the corner of Barclay and Academy Street. Another moved into a former convent in the center of Poughkeepsie. Even the faculty flowed into this movement, with seven Brothers relocating off campus to a house on Eden Terrace.

In 1967, to assist in this transition to small group living, the College acted as sponsor of two smaller buildings, named Gregory and in honor of two former faculty members. Circular in design, each housed 32 students, sixteen to a floor, two to a room. Even before completion of the construction, the plan was changed. The Esopus province retained its student brothers to live on the Esopus campus, so that only one of the houses was ever used for student Brothers. The other was used for faculty Brothers housing. By 1972 both houses were taken over by the College and used for dormitories until their demolition in 2009 because their sites were needed for the Hancock Building.

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