In this interview, Father Bourmaud, then Vice-Rector at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, recalls his arrival in Winona in June 1988.
Fr. Bourmaud, the Winona Diary mentions you as the first priest inaugurating the move from Ridgefield, Connecticut to Winona, Minnesota. What do you remember from that time?
I confess that my recollection is minimal. The article dated December, 1988 is certainly much more accurate than anything I can bring up buried under 30 years of priestly wanderings.
What I do recall is that at that time I was acting as Vice-Rector by default. It was probably in that capacity, due to the absence of Fr. Williamson who was on retreat preparing for his episcopal consecration, that I was involved with the first batch of pioneers to take over the Winona Dominican house. It was a rather large group of seminarians who were meant to get everything ready for the arrival of His Excellency, and make the first adjustments to our new house.
Was there anything done ahead of time in Ridgefield to prepare for the move to Winona?
You may imagine that we had been studying the move months ahead. Already we had shipped the entire library of about 10,000 books to the new place via Mr. DiCecco (and his wife), who drove 24 hours non-stop in his semi-truck. In addition to our private things, we had to take most of the sacristy items, which was burdensome, to suit a seminary setting. As for the rest, I remember a joke of Fr. Lafitte who was to take over Ridgefield to return it to its former use as an old Jesuit retreat house: “I hope you are leaving behind a little more than just the bare walls!” I do think we left him a few items indeed, most of the furniture and cooking utensils, although he probably felt a bit cheated. But that is the French for you…
You had never seen Winona before. Can you mention some details of your landing there?
We had only seen photos and heard reports from visitors, especially from our carpenter crew that had been working there for a whole year. We had hardly set foot in the property when Pete Sardegna, our former Long Island coordinator, and his two sons, welcomed us with a cold beer and their Italian laughter. Then and there, our two day, 2,000 mile trip was behind us and we felt refreshed.
What were your first impressions of the property?
As the van rolled in, we saw that the landscape had been properly groomed by the working crew to make you feel welcome. The green acreage and the total privacy on top of this Winona bluff was endearing right away, and looked very impressive. Moreover, the Minnesota summer, although very dry that year, felt like a nice breeze compared to what we had gone through the past 48 hours. We knew and felt that this property was our real home at last. That impression only increased in the following days, weeks, and years.
And what about the building itself?
The building was originally designed as a religious novitiate for the Central Dominican Province. In shape of a cross, with the smaller sides being the chapel and the refectory, it gave the impression of being just the right size for our needs. The religious touch was not something that came as an afterthought. The Winona friary breathed St. Dominic’s spirit through and through, well thought out, even to the point of having a confessional built into the parlor area.
What did you think first when you visited the chapel?
The chapel, despite its somewhat modern image of the crucifix, became quickly the joy of our aspirations and prayers, as it was perfect for prayer and the chanting of the office. The acoustics would soon be filled with warm voices singing Gregorian chant and longstanding sacred polyphony.
Were the seminarians busy right away? How did it all work out?
I think here, you need really to go back to the archives of the seminary or the Angelus article of December, 1988. As for myself, I remember that, being mandated to write the next seminary letter to announce the consecrations, I flew into Geneva to attend the episcopal consecration of my own seminary rector. Soon after, returning to Ridgefield, I had to write this letter announcing to the faithful that “it was most fitting to have an eminent building to welcome a new Excellency.” Incidentally, Bishop Williamson moved to Winona only days after. From Ridgefield, I remember getting back to Winona by car for the second time within two weeks, in the company of the then seminarian Michael Harber, after stopping to visit his parents at Fort Wayne on the way. After another round about tour through Seattle’s Puget Sound and Alaska, I was getting very tired and hardly knew whether I was dreaming or awake. Later that busy summer, Fr. James Peek and I had to man the thirty-day retreat which took place for the upper seminary years.
To sum up, was it a dramatic move or did all go according to plan?
The answer would probably be something in the middle. Between planning on paper and executing in real life, there is the human element, with its sweat and hiccups, its unforeseen turn of events, and its delays. But, all in all, we can say that it was a joyous adventure, and we all felt the joy and thrill of preparing the new and better nest for the next 30 years of seminary life.