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Mt. Irenaeus Celebrates 30 Years, Looks to the Future

Mt. Irenaeus' friar community. From left to right:

Mt. Irenaeus’ friar community, from left to right: Joseph Kotula, Kevin Kriso, Louis McCormick, and Daniel Riley. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Gronemeier)

WEST CLARKSVILLE, N.Y. — Mt. Irenaeus commemorated its 30th anniversary on Sept. 19 with close to 200 people of all ages sharing in the celebration. The festivities included a memorial ceremony in the labyrinth, a Mass celebrated by Daniel Riley, OFM, with participation by students, alumni and other friends of the Mountain, a dish-to-pass supper, and a concert by Kim and Reggie Harris, joined by Glenn McClure.

The celebration, in typical Mountain style, was warm and conversational. During the labyrinth ceremony, names were read of friends who have supported the Mountain and loved ones of those attending; Kevin Kriso, OFM, guardian of Holy Peace Friary, led the prayers and remembrance, and Kim and Reggie Harris, who received the HNP Francis Medal in 2009, led the assembly in singing.

During the Mass, Maura Bednar Parda, a native of nearby Olean, N.Y., noted that “it took going away to realize the beauty of the mountains, and of this Mountain,” while St. Bonaventure University senior Mike Specht pointed out that the celebration could have been held anywhere, because what makes the Mountain special is the community.

Both Dan, Mountain founder and animator, and Chris Domes, one of the first laypeople to live at the Mountain and now president of Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Wisconsin, a Franciscan college, discussed the people who have shaped the Mountain, and what it offers both the Church and the world as a whole.

Dan noted, “In our early years, we were able to, with the significant gift of generous benefactors, complete our most essential buildings, which have really shaped and supported our Mountain mission and culture, from the design of the chapel through our very last construction of La Paz hermitage.”

He said he and architect Grant Scott had developed an exceptional concept design/build relationship, which through the generosity of Scott and his firm, was essential to the growth of the Mountain.

“With this growth was the ability to grow our friar community and have companions and guests with us. The shape and form of our life and the longevity of the commitment of our founding friars, Daniel Hurley, OFM, Louis McCormick, OFM, and Joseph Kotula, OFM, and their singular dedication to our manner of life and ministry have lent to dynamic continuity and the success of our mission, along with a very vital and always vigilant board of trustees.”

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Dan Riley preaches during the Mass celebrating the Mountain’s anniversary. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Gronemeier)

Recalling Early Years
Domes, who spoke at the anniversary Mass, recalled being one of the group of students who visited in the fall of 1984, when Dan celebrated Mass and the group met the owner of the land that is now the Mountain. Domes graduated from St. Bonaventure University in May 1985 and lived in the university’s friary until the property officially became Mountain land in early June. He then helped to move donated furniture stored in garages in Doyle Hall to the property.

“People just started coming over time. We put a screened-in tent on a platform and had Masses there,” Domes recalled. But prayer was accompanied by a lot of hard work, such as using a brush hog to clear land for the first cabin, Sunrise, and to groom old logging trails to create walking paths. “We started doing dish-to-pass brunches after Mass that first summer. I remember sharing in the work, sharing in the prayer services — it was very, very powerful.”

One major change that Domes sees from the early days is that the Mountain now has the facilities — the chapel, several cabins — to accommodate people as needed, when in the early days it was very difficult to accommodate large groups of people.

A constant of Mt. Irenaeus has been the sense of community, and the rhythm of Mountain life.

“Whether you come on Sunday for Mass or to stay for a week, you become part of the life of the community,” Domes said. “The prayer life here is also a practical way of living — prayer and solitude when you need it, but being part of the life of the community.”

Dan sees that inclusion of laypeople into Mountain community life as one of the signature aspects of the Mountain.

“In a world that still sees Church from a clerical perspective, the Mountain, from the beginning, has been blessed with the growth and commitment of many single and married persons, and with this, the formation of a Secular Franciscan community and our Franciscan Sojourners, women and men who are growing the Mountain experience in their homes and hometowns,” Dan said.

Domes agreed: “This is a very distinctive experience of Church, because it allows the laity to enter into it on an equal footing. The other thing, I think, is that it is not prescriptive; it’s not ritualistic. You bring all your ‘stuff’ with you, and you are accepted as you are. It reaches out to each person, no matter where they are on their faith journey.”

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Joseph Kotula, Dan Riley and some helpful partners-in-ministry delve into a cake decorated for the celebration. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Gronemeier)

Reaching Beyond the Mountaintop
While the location of the Mountain and its natural beauty are key to the Mountain experience, Dan notes that its impact reaches far beyond the mountaintop.

“Part of it is what has always been a special charism of ours — the formation of relationships and the growth of human intimacy, as well as the comfort and companioning of all creation here as a foundation of our spirituality. We are blessed by the natural beauty of this place and it took us three years to find it!” he said, adding that the selection process “was probably the most important part of our beginning” in that worshiping in the small space together taught the community the importance of closeness as an essential part of Gospel living.

“The simple, rich blessing of daily life — and simple is one of the essential words — in a very complex world makes what is most important about Mt. Irenaeus ‘transportable,’ as I like to say. We barely know we are taking it into ourselves, and then taking it away to give away and share it with others in other places,” he said.

While they both expect changes, both are hopeful about the future of the Mountain.

Domes sees a need for greater dependence on, and involvement of, the laity, along with friars and sisters. “This place offers an opportunity to think about vocations differently,” he said. “I see the Mountain as a place for education in vocational discernment, but one that is different from the seminary model,” adding that while he didn’t choose religious life, “the Mountain was part of my formation as a Catholic, and as a leader in Catholic higher education. It offers an opportunity to slow life down; to think about relationships, about your environment. That is learning — in the deepest sense of the word.”

To further the end of greater lay involvement, the Mountain Board is leading a search for an executive director, who would work in tandem with Dan and Kevin, taking on a more managerial role that will free them to focus on ministry.

Dan said he expects the Mountain to continue to expand its circle, offering its unique gifts to a broader community.

“The Mountain has always been a place of education — particularly of heart-knowing — but also of expanding our capacity to know in other ways, both in the marketplace today and in the sphere of personal life, companioning people who are hungry ‘to know,'” he said. “And so our growth beyond our particular mountaintop will be a major part of our future attention to our manner of life and ministry as we companion persons and intentional communities in other places beyond West Clarksville, N.Y. With some of the additional land and our great consciousness of living as a community of God’s creatures, I see a deepening of this mystical and moral relationship: the call to live well with one another and learn from each other. ”

Photos of the celebration can be found on the Mt. Irenaeus website as well as on the Mountain’s Facebook page, where a video of the anniversary festivities is available.

— Suzanne English, a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, is secretary of the St. Irenaeus Fraternity OFS. She is also a member of the Mountain’s Communications Committee and the HNP Communications Advisory Committee.

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