Reunion V Niagara Univ., Lewiston, NY
July 11-13, 2019
And so welcome and thanks for being a part of Reunion V. You will not be disappointed. Thanks to the Committee: Frank, Ron, Murph, Dick Fell, Pat Wright, Ray McCracken, and especially, Bob Elias and Dick Moore, the Event Coordinators. Also, special thanks to Susan Strzalkowski and her Niagara staff. A truly great effort!
Yesterday after my arrival , I journeyed to De Chantal Hall in Lewiston to revisit my old stomping grounds from '65-'67. Driving up the long drive, I looked to see the garage built by us in the summer of '66. It was still standing after these 53 years and looked better than ever. The garage included a workshop. Opening the door , I noticed the workbench, heating source, windows. It all looked so familiar once again! Over in the right corner on the floor stood a heavy cardboard barrel, similar to the ones we used to pack for the Missions. Opening the barrel, I found a manila envelope taped to the inside lid. Dusty and dirty a postmark was evident on it. "Lewiston, NY, 1967". The envelope was addressed to one, "Rev Mr William J Mittendorf, OSFS, De Chantal Hall". What in the world is this, I thought ! How did I not see this in 1967, and then I remembered that I had left the Oblates in January, '67 from De Chantal Hall. Opening the envelope, I found a letter handwritten, yellowed with age, and barely legibile after some 50 years plus being inside the barrel. The letter reads:
To: The XOSFS Reunion Class V to be held on July 11, 2019
From: De Chantal Hall
" Somehow I knew that you would be here this evening. For many of you, a return to the Niagara frontier where years ago you spent time in Oblate formation. Welcome! I noticed that you have changed over these many years. For some, more than 50 years. Likewise, I have changed. My doors opened in the Fall, 1948 to young Oblates as they began their studies at Niagara University. Life has its ups and downs for you and me. My doors at De Chantal Hall stayed open for young Oblate scholastics, who were beginning to taste the waters of Salesian life as students until around 1979, when I began to fall into disrepair and became a costly financial burden on the Oblates. My residents had dwindled from a high of 70 plus to 4 or 5. My days were numbered as I sat on the banks of the Niagara River as a place once lively with young Oblates fed by my master chef Beetle Bailey. Decision made! I was sold and closed as De Chantal Hall. Now only a memory in time! Although , I am gone my memories remain vivid. Young guys clad in black cassocks and starched white collars. Guys praying in my Chapel. Guys dining in my refectory. Guys playing on my ball fields. Guys studying and riding the bus to Niagara University.
Each of you is here tonight to begin this two day event of journeying back to your roots. Of spending time with your brother confreres of old ! Yes, we are all blessed with that label "being old". It is no accident that you are here! Life is a journey. Somewhere along the way, I heard that you left the Oblates and set out on unsure waters into a world that you would discover as different . No more black cassocks, no bells, no meals in silence, and alone without your confreres. You made a new life with the help of new confreres who would include wives, children, grandchildren, and new friends. Tonight, you look back. You reunite with your confreres of old. Share your stories. Revisit the old days-Oblate life as it once was! You are the custodians of that life! You were a special part of the Oblate life. The Oblates today are blessed by your service. You will never be forgotten!
The waters of the great Niagara have called and you answered God's call to come! Enjoy your time together. Thank God for your Oblate life! Relive those stories and memories of days gone by. Enrich one another by your presence. Remember your deceased confreres who have gone to prepare a place for you. We have no bond but the bond of love!"
My love to you all,
In my research of the history of De Chantal Hall , I want to express a sincere thank you to my sources: Fr Bill Mc Candless , OSFS , Archivist at Childs, Maryland , who dug into the history of the place and furnished me with many photos and articles. Fr Bob Ashenbrenner, OSFS at Childs in his 90's , and Fr Dan Gambet, OSFS at De Sales University in his 90's, who gave me their stories as being in the first class at De Chantal Hall. Denny Kelsch who was then acting superior at De Chantal Hall when it closed in 1979 and the reasons for its closing. The staff at Niagara University under the supervision of Susan-Ann-Strzalkowski who prepared the Power Point Presentation with photos and documents furnished by me. Mr Howard Morgan at Niagara University and Mr. David Schoen, Archivist at Niagara University.
The setting is 1947. The only Oblate scholasticate is De Sales Hall , the old one in Washington, DC founded in 1924. The Provincial, Fr Buckley is concerned about overcrowding at De Sales Hall and the need to expand. Bishop O'Hara , later Cardinal O'Hara , is bishop of Buffalo and in 1947 invites the Oblates to open two high schools in his diocese. The Oblates accept and open Bishop Duffy in Niagara Falls and De Sales High School in Lockport. Previously in 1946 the Oblates had gone to Cathedral Prep in Erie.
Scholastic Bob Ashenbrenner, who entered the Oblates in 1944 , is assigned to teach at Duffy , which in 1947 had only Freshman and Sophomore grades. He teaches there one year 1947-48.
Meanwhile, Fr Buckley and his Provincial Council focus on overcrowding and express concerns about the need for seminarians to be educated in a university other than Catholic University in order to gain proper accreditation for high schools operated by the Oblates. The concern is that all Oblate teachers have the same degree from Catholic University. Thus, two concerns are on the front burner: (1) the overcrowding at De Sales Hall; and (2) the need to diversify academics to another undergraduate university.
On July 7, 1948, the Provincial Council meets in Wilmington, DE. Those attending are Frs: Buckley, Tucker, Lawless, Stahl, and Philip Butler. The Robinson Property in Lewiston, NY is recommended by Fr Lawless at a purchase price of $50,000. The Council agrees unanimously to acquire it. The Robinson property or Robinson Estate and is about 100 years old. One of its previous owners was a lawyer who defended the assassin of President McKinley.
Fr Joe McCoy is elected to serve as first Superior and his assistant is Fr Bob Freiler. The property is acquired and named De Chantal Hall. Two additional properties are included in the purchase to be later called Aviat and Chappuis. The first class of Oblate scholastics arrive in the Fall, 1948 and begin studies at Niagara University. In addition to Bob Ashenbrenner, the following scholastics begin at De Chantal Hall: Norb Lux, Paul Burke, Sal Sarro, Joe McNamara, Charlie LaPenta, Joe Coyle, Sal D'Angelo, William Guerin, Dan Gambet, Br. Mike Rosenello, Al Rosjinski, Zeke Toner, Joe Mellon, Chet Warren, Jim Boston, John Kempf, Bill Donohue, and Bob Healy.
Of this first class, Frs: Bob Ashenbrenner , Dan Gambet, and Br Mike Rosenello are still living. Fr Bob is 93. Some interesting notes about the early De Chantal Hall. The chapel was in the main house and had a monastic look with pews facing each other. The altar was built by John McGoldrick in Washington, DC. Transportation to Niagara University is in a government surplus bus, " the Yellow Streak" piloted by Bob Ashenbrenner and Dan Gambet. There were a total of 48 scholastics and 3 priests in 1948, the beginning of De Chantal Hall.
In 1958, more room is needed at De Chantal Hall. On October 19, 1958 ground is broken for the new chapel and refectory to be located in the basement. The chapel will hold 100. Fr John Heckel succeeds Fr McCoy as Superior. In 1959, the new chapel is dedicated under a new Superior, Fr Joe Woods, who would remain in office until 1965 and succeeded by Fr Tom McHugh as Superior.
In 1962, Fr Woods completes the Shrine to Our Lady of Light . The building is still there. The steeple ( no longer there) is built by scholastics. In 1963, growing pains again! Overcrowding and plans for a dormitory addition above the chapel are made. The dorm will house 24 men at a cost in excess of $3 million. Ground is broken and the new dorm addition is built. Now, the capacity of the Main Building plus Aviat and Chappuis is 80.
In 1966, a new three car garage is built by the scholastics. Aviat is insulated and the porch enclosed. There are 60 scholastics, one of the largest classes ever. Underclassmen enroll in the Educational Department at NU to receive teaching certificates upon graduation. Fr Kroupa is busy digging ditches to put the electric underground.
In 1967, some interesting news about scholastics at De Chantal Hall: Dave Kenehan becomes the first Oblate to earn a letter at Niagara University. He did it in swimming. Frank Murphy wins best actor award at N. U. in a one act play. Ed Gordon wins best supporting actor in one act play at N.U. In 1968, Stan Ficner wins Sophomore Medal at N.U. Kevin McGonigle wins Junior Medal at N.U. Frank Amato wins Best Production Award at N.U. Festival of Arts for his production of "Beginnings". Tim Sheehan wins Best Actor Award at N.U. Festival of Arts.
In the Fall 1976, Denny Kelsch is a member of the T-D Formation Team. He joins Rich Forti at De Chantal Hall to supervise the associates and professed scholastics. There are about 14 men there. Quite a drop in man power. Of the 14, ten are associates and 3 are scholastics along with Beetle Bailey. Aviat has already been rented to a a young couple. Chappuis is empty. The situation is a financial drain on the Oblates. There is no view of the future that would justify keeping the place going. Some of the associates and a couple of scholastics are attending the University of Buffalo and not Niagara University. U of B is about 15 miles from De Chantal Hall.
In 1977, Denny Kelsch asks the Provincial , The Treasurer, and Formation Team of the T-D province for authority to sell De Chantal Hall. The question is submitted to the members of the province . Many want to keep the place out of great memories. Bob Healy, the Treasurer says that the feelings of the members should be considered. The Formation Team wants to put the associates and scholastics closer to University of Buffalo. Denny suggests that those province members who want to save the place be assessed to cover the costs to maintain the place. No one comes forward. Decision made in 1979 to sell the place.
Denny , Bob Healy, and a realtor begin to look for large homes in Buffalo. A home is found on Lafayette Ave and purchased. Denny , his dad, and uncle complete a renovations on the house. About 10 men move in. John Lehner and John Kasper join Denny . The sale of DeChantal Hall is made to a local fundamentalist church. Aviat and Chappuis are also sold.
I visited the property about 25 years ago. It was then owned and operated by a church. The chapel with pews was still in tact. Several questions remain:
1. Why did the Oblates choose N.U.? Did they have a connection with the Vincentians in Philadelphia? The answer appears yes. In fact, N. U. in 1948, had a seminary operated by the Vincentians, Our Lady of the Angels Seminary. Early Oblate scholastics took classes at the seminary.
2. Selling price of DeChantal Hall?
The biggest reason for the demise of De Chantal Hall was the decline in vocations. Also, in 1966, the East opened Allentown College and Brisson Seminary. Tomorrow, we visit the place now the headquarters of WTS Company.