Chapter I: Basilian Roots
So much of the genesis of St. John Fisher College has its root in my own personal experience that recounting now may be helpful in getting the proper perspective on the beginning of the college. I feel there is no particular value for anyone other than myself in this brief biography, yet there are dates and backgrounds which may fill out the final story. In no spirit of boasting are these recorded, but rather for the purpose of appraisal by others when the complete story of the foundation of St. John Fisher College is written by whomsoever that may be.
As a good place to start as any would be my graduation from St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto, in June, 1927. Leo Knowlton from Toronto, Gus O'Keefe from British Columbia and I were the only three graduates in honor philosophy of the Varsity Class of 1927, at St. Mike's. There were others, but we were the only honor philosophers.
Leo and Gus got good honor standing. I graduated with third class honors in a class of three. That following summer I arranged to pursue a law degree and did a bit of preliminary dealing with lawyers and Osgoode Hall, the Province of Ontario Law School. I did a lot of swimming also, and generally floated around the town of Welland, Ontario, where my parents, James J. Haffey and Mary Teresa McNeff Haffey, put up with me for that summer. Also enduring my presence were my sisters Eileen Haffey, Mrs. Eileen McKee, St. Catharines, Ontario, who passed away in 1963; and Loretta Haffey, now Mrs. Joseph P. Rundle, Rye, New York. My older sister, Antoinette, had become a nun previously in St. Joseph's order, and was stationed in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In the course of that summer, Leo Knowlton, my good friend, whose family later became great friends of the Basilian Fathers through his doctor brothers, Charlie and Billy, arranged for me to work with him on the races at Longbranch, outside Toronto. We didn't have much to do but we dressed for the inactivity each day. I recall a black suit with a white stripe in it, a bow tie, a very nice hat, and receiving unusually good pay for doing very little--a sort of detective-usher--in the stands during the race meeting. During this time I stayed at St. Michael's College as a guest or a free border, there being a lot of vacant rooms in the summertime.
At the end of the race meeting I put my application to join the Basilian Fathers under the door of the Superior, Father McCorkell, and then ran down the hall and home. In a few days I received notice from Father Francis Foster, the Superior General of the Basilian Fathers at the time, that my application for the novitiate had been accepted. I had said I was ready to go in August, 1927; however, there were three others, Beano Brown, Kenny Harrison, and George Thompson, who were to enter later in September and I was asked to enter with them.
Father Sharpe was the Master of Novices and a wonderful one. Father Player was the spiritual director. He was a real gentleman of the old school, the old school in this case being the Basilian School at Plymouth, England. He was cordial, learned, scholarly, and more important for all of us, a truly spiritual person.
After finishing the novitiate and taking our vows on October 2, 1928 on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, I went to the Seminary of the Basilian Fathers at 21 St. Mary's Street, Toronto. We called it "The Scholasticate" in those days. Father Bondy was the Superior, newly arrived and sternly competent. To Ontario College of Education, a graduate division of the University of Toronto, I went each day with some nine others after theology class each morning, finishing at 8:45, and then walking briskly to O.C.E. on Bloor Street to be there for a nine o'clock class. The journey required haste. We did this the entire year. It included classes, observations, student teaching at Bloor College, Jarvis Collegiate and University of Toronto Schools--a kind of campus laboratory for the College of Education.
That year was busy because in that fall and winter, the scholastics were allowed to play on the football and hockey teams of St. Michael's College. I played tackle (middle) on the Intermediate Intercollegiate team, losing only to Loyola College of Montreal. Father Carr was the coach and, in my opinion, a better priest than coach. Practice concluded at 4:45 P.M. each day in the old sandlot backyard at St. Mike's. Then we hustled over to Theology class at five o'clock at 21 St. Mary's Street, where Bobby McBrady (in his late 80's then) taught us. Father Wilf Garvey, recently returned from Rome, became a champion of scholastics' rights--a good balance to the sometimes-strict-but-always-just Father Bondy. His early death was a severe loss to the community.
Father Foster, then Superior General, taught us Canon Law. Father Frank Carroll, later to become Bishop of Calgary, Alberta, was then Scripture Professor at St. Augustine Seminary in Toronto, and taught us Scripture. Father Carr, who succeeded as Superior General on the tragic death of Father Foster, had a class on Patristics on Sunday mornings. I learned very little from it except the story of old Father Tom Hayden's colt, called Quasimodo because it was born on the first Sunday after Easter.
These years included a stint as dorm master about every second week at the high school at St. Michael's College across Bay Street. We did get a wonderful breakfast at St. Michael's where one could order steaks for breakfast and have fresh fruit and cream on the cereal.
Skipping down through the years of the seminary, the years of the scholasticate life, I was ordained on December 19, 1931 in St. Basil's Church, Toronto, by the then Bishop of Hebron (a defunct See), Bishop MacDonald. Folk called him "Sandy," a true Scot from Eastern Canada. He had been Bishop of Victoria, British Columbia. He was an authority on the Mass and a prominent figure in discussions about the jurisdiction of a bishop. Some say that he was relieved of his See because he maintained that a bishop got his faculties straight from God, i.e., he did not have to get them every five years from the Pope by virtue of an ad limina visit. Since he was the farthest removed from the Holy See of any bishop in the world, it was for him a financial problem to go to Rome on a quinquennial visit. In any case, he became a sort of auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Neil McNeil at Toronto who gave our class the tonsure and other minor orders.
Others in the class were Stanley Murphy, Frank Burns, Jimmy Embser, George Thompson, Tom McGouey, and Johnny MacIntyre.
In June of 1932, I received my appointment to the staff of St. Michael's College and moved over at the end of the school year, sometime in June, 1932. Father Bellisle was the superior and President of the college at the time. Father McCorkell was the Registrar and Dean of Studies. My first assignment was to teach Chemistry in the high school and to be the dorm master for Elmsley Hall which had about 40 students, almost all of them from Rochester, New York, e.g., Hugh Marks, Russ Barone, Joe Connelly, Romey Hart, Neil Sullivan, Louis Edelman, Tony Saeli, et al.
I also assisted the high school football coach and in winter, of course there was hockey coaching. In January of 1933, Father Bellisle asked me to take over the "Jews Flat" (origin of the name is lost in obscurity) where there was a mixture of art students, high school students, hockey players, football players, and just guests. There had been some disciplinary problems there and the President thought I was the one to run it. I had the job there for four years. It necessitated going back and forth and up and down five flights of stairs to teach chemistry in the basement of the old building on the corner of Bay and St. Joseph's Street.
Sometime, circa 1934, Father McCorkell moved me into teaching course in Philosophy-Cosmology in the Arts part, in addiction to my Chemistry teaching. Some students in that class were Victor Brezik (later my Superior in Texas), Charles Lavery (the second president of St. John Fisher College), Neil Sullivan (who later taught philosophy at Nazareth College), and Bernard Lavery, brother of Charles.
We met in the parlor at St. Basil's Church for class, space at the time being at a premium. Also, I taught the girls from Loretto and St. Joseph's Colleges -- about 30 in the joint class -- Religion in those years. We met in what was, as I recall, Number 5 Elmsley Place, the northeast corner of St. Joseph's Street and Elmsley Place.
I taught Chemistry, both junior and senior matriculation, and started to do graduate work in Chemistry by working on a program with Dr. Kendrick, head of the department at the University of Toronto, and Professor Fennell. I mention this because out of this group came a contact with a person who was to have much to do in the thought and the background of the foundations for our college in Rochester.
This was Abbe Alexander Vachon. He was a prominent member of the Canadian Chemical Society, and taken his chemistry work at Harvard and MIT, and was then teaching at Laval University in Quebec City. He was a model priest and a respected man of science. It was the suggestion of Professors Kendrick and Fennell that I contact Abbe Vachon and see if I could work out some summer program with him to get my master's degree. Varsity labs were not open in summertime. When Abbe Vachon visited St. Michael's for dinner one night, Father McCorkell arranged for me to meet and talk with him. In the main corridor of the old St. Michael's building, he told me he would be only too pleased to have me join him in the summer work which he had organized for his own and other students like myself. Therefore, in 1935, as soon as classes at St. Michael's were over in June, I joined Abbe Vachon in Quebec City to go with him and his party via the boat "Laval" to open the "Station Biologique du St. Laurent" in Trois Pistoles on the Gulf of St. Lawrence about 150 miles east of Quebec City.
This was the finest thing to happen to me to date in an academic way as well as in an ecclesiastical way. Father Vachon and I struck up a warm friendship. When his family would visit the station, I was always included in the family affairs and to this day, years after his death, his sister, Anna Rinfret, corresponds with me.
The wonderful summers at Trois Pistoles continued until 1939. Vividly do I remember coming back from Quebec that September first. Many people on the train from Quebec to Montreal had just returned from Europe. They were anxious to be back because of the rumors of war. They had good reason to be alarmed; World War II began on September 3, 1939.
I had no summer vacation with my family that year, only a few hours stay-over in Welland on the way to Rochester to rejoin the staff at Aquinas Institute. I recall hearing the newscast of the declaration of war in the parlor of our home. The next day I took off for Rochester.
The association with Father Vachon, who in the last two summers at Quebec had moved up to become the Rector of the University and had been made a monsignor, provided me with an insight into financing a college, recruiting a staff, and the objectives of a Catholic college. Catholic higher education was a continued absorbing interest for Abbe Vachon. Much of this rubbed off on me. I recall one wonderful visit I had with Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., an eminent scholar from Europe who was preaching the priests' retreat at Laval University. My friendship with Father Vachon won me the privilege of the company of such persons. It may seem a very remote preparation for the founding of a college for men, but it all adds up to the final pattern.
Monsignor Vachon was later appointed Archbishop of Ottawa, Canada. I was present at his consecration in Ottawa when Archbishop Forbes, his consecrator and predecessor, collapsed. I visited him each summer after his consecration, and during the summer of 1947 he visited me, at which time I was able to show him and his party the newly acquired site for St. John Fisher College. Father Alphonse Malone, C.S.B., and I met the Archbishop at my sister's home in Kenmore, New York and motored to Rochester, where, at my request, the Archbishop blessed the site of the future St. John Fisher College.