SHOHOLA, Pa. There was a time when the Roman Catholic faith was found everywhere in medieval Europe, where faith and culture were one.
Today, in an American society where faith and culture are mostly at odds, a new order of priests and a handful of families plan to re-create a Catholic medieval city on a 1,025-acre tract on a small mountain overlooking the Delaware River.
With the help of the Internet and computerized mailing lists, the Society of St. John is busily raising $300 million for what could be one of 21st-century America’s more unusual social experiments.
“This is not Utopia,” the Rev. Eric Ensey, 34, tells visitors. “We are not building the perfect society. We are trying to bring people who are human so we can witness to the beauty of the lifestyle. We wanted to make it possible for people to have access to the sources of the faith, to beauty and a Catholic ambiance.”
There’s plenty of that in the stone farmhouse where the society has headquarters amidst a thick forest off State Road 434. The roomy home with Italian-beamed ceilings, an outdoor gazebo and a fountain comes with the easy camaraderie one would expect at a nobleman’s castle in rural France. In fact, several of the society’s members just returned from a year at the Benedictine monastery of Fontgombault near Poitiers in central France, learning how to live together as a consecrated community.
Now back in Pennsylvania, they wear black cassocks that are highly visible to the 2,035 residents in this rural resort area. Life among them does not appear stern, judging from the music jam sessions and the laughter amid a simple lunch of pizza and fruit served in the farmhouse’s ample modern kitchen. Sandwiched between the times of worship, they have poetry and Shakespeare readings.
“I came because I was excited with what’s going on here,” says Mark Schwerdt, a junior at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., who came to help do fund raising for the summer. “I’d like to help this thing. We want to be city builders.”
This city, which has no name yet, aims to be a citadel of Catholic culture with daily Masses in Latin, a college specializing in classical education, church bells tolling hourly and streets configured to be safe for families with children. It will be constructed like the French towns of Vezelay, Angouleme and the island fortress city of Mont St. Michel, in that at its crest will be a church, visible for miles as the guiding light of its inhabitants.
Like its European counterparts, the church would be built on a plaza, next to a city hall and a fountain. Beyond would be a greenbelt of fields and woods. Throughout would be chapels, shrines, a cemetery and wayside crosses.
At present, all that exists on the church site is a golden meadow laced with scrub oak trees and a view of three states. On Sept. 16, the society bought the land, along with several buildings, for $1.9 million and since then has been trying to raise the funds to pay off the mortgage. At least $200,000 has come in thus far, but society officials refuse to reveal the total amount raised.
The society receives 300 hits a day on its www.ssjohn.org Web site. It has a waiting list of 150 men who wish to sign up as priests, a number almost unheard of in any diocese today. The society has 16 full members, including seven priests, one religious brother and several deacons, plus another 12 postulants due to join them next month. It will take the postulants at least six years to be ordained.
The idea, these priests say, is to create a Catholic “ambiance” that would attract professionals, merchants, artists and homemakers to relocate there. As for jobs, the resort town of Milford is 10 miles away. Scranton is 45 miles to the west, Philadelphia 173 miles to the south and New York about 90 minutes to the east via Interstate 84.
“They’re very ambitious,” says their bishop, the Rt. Rev. James C. Timlin of the Diocese of Scranton. “They’re young and intelligent and they want to do great things for the church. I’m very impressed with them, and with the help of God, this will bear fruit.”
Bishop Timlin, who shepherds 343,000 Catholics in northeastern Pennsylvania, has long been sympathetic to traditionalist groups. Ordained in 1951 and familiar with the Latin rite, he is sponsoring another Latin-rite group that is building its own seminary in Lincoln, Neb. The church discouraged Latin rite Masses after the Second Vatican Council, but in 1988, Pope John Paul II issued a decree permitting dioceses to reinstitute them.
Since then, dozens of dioceses have brought back the Latin Masses, which have a strong appeal for younger Catholics. Seven of the society’s members were schooled at a Latin rite seminary in Winona, Minn.
Two of the society’s board members are connected with the ultra-conservative Catholic newspaper the Wanderer and others belong to similar groups like the St. Joseph Foundation and the National Coalition of Clergy and Laity. Manny Miranda, a D.C. lawyer who is president of the Cardinal Newman Society of Catholic Higher Education, says there’s a strong current among the nation’s 61 million Catholics to fund conservative causes.
“The money’s out there, and it’s not just older people,” he says. “I’m 40 and I know people in their 30s and 20s interested in reviving a conservative Catholicism. These movements are organizing themselves and there’s a growing amount of clergy supporting the laity.”
The priests, who range in age from 18 to 66, are leading the way in Shohola. “It’s not the clergy’s job to build cities,” says the Rev. Basil Sarweh, 30, “but we’re doing this because no one else is doing so.”
Pike County Commissioner Harry Forbes says local officials have welcomed the group “with open arms.”
“We look at this as another avenue of a good neighbor moving into the county,” he says. “It’s a gorgeous piece of property they’ve purchased there, on which will be our first college and our first Catholic high school.”
The Catholics legally cannot restrict who moves in. One of their inquiries has come from a family of Orthodox Jews and “of course, they’d be welcome,” Father Ensey says.
“Good attracts,” says Dominic O’Connor, the society’s vicar general, “which is why we’ve had interest from people who aren’t necessarily Catholic.”
Pennsylvania has been home to more than its share of religious communities. Its founder, William Penn, envisioned the state as a haven for religious freedom. The Ephrata Cloister, near Lancaster, numbered nearly 80 celibate Mennonites during its height in the 1750s. A similar community sprang up in Harmony, 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, from 1824 to 1905. Others include the Amish in south central and far western parts of the state and the Bruderhof, a Mennonitelike group in southwestern Pennsylvania.
To date, five families with children have relocated to Shohola to work in the community, doing tasks from cooking to fund raising in one of three buildings on the property. The idea is to gather spiritual, intellectual and artistic resources in one place as building blocks for a Catholic culture.
The priests have begun instituting its spiritual base: the Mass, celebrated in a converted horse stable. The community revolves around a noon Eucharist, as well as Lauds at 8 a.m., Vespers at 6 p.m. and Compline at 8 p.m., all, of course, in Latin.
From a lively religious life evolves a culture, the way of life adhered to more or less by the inhabitants. Central to this is their new college, St. Justin Martyr’s, where scholars and leaders can be trained. Classes start this fall in a converted hunting lodge.
The college, modeled after St. John’s College in Annapolis, employs six professors teaching a classical curriculum based on the liberal arts. Subjects will include Latin, Greek, music, philosophy, math, science and Scripture. Although postulants will be its only students at first, the program will expand to include high school students in the firm belief that a classical curriculum is the best way to pass on wisdom to the next generation. One of the students will be John Zoscak, 18, of McKeesport, Pa., who became a postulant last year.
“God called me basically when I was at work on graveyard shift,” he says. “The thought crossed my mind, ‘You know, you’re not happy.’ ”
“Well, why not?” he asked the Almighty.
“Because you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” was the response.
“And what is that?” he asked.
“Join the Society of St. John,” was the answer. He did so, but “my dad wasn’t too pleased.”