Cupertino Friary ~ by Gerald Kirk
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Chapel (left) and Main Building (center)



Cupertino Friary was a Franciscan seminary for Brothers, friars who were not ordained to the priesthood, run by the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (OFM Conv.).

Situated on Sandy Creek Valley Road, 4 1/2 miles southeast of Watertown, the property originally served as a farm school for "wayward boys", operated by the Watertown Board of Education. The facility was put up for sale in 1954 after 56 years of operation.


The Franciscans purchased the farm school in 1956, re-naming it after St. Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th century Italian friar known for his sanctity and for numerous incidents of levitation. A modernistic statue of him, created by Brother Berard, was mounted on a 5 foot high stone pedestal in front of the chapel. The friary typically housed 20-25 priests, Brothers in simple vows*, postulants and candidates.

  • After a year of novitiate, Brothers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for a term of three years. This period was termed "simple vows" as compared with "solemn vows" taken after the three years, and signifying a life commitment.






Father Joel Arnold was the Superior, and it was he that oversaw the major renovations that would produce a functioning seminary. His first task was to convert the former classroom building to a large chapel and sacristy.
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Front of chapel in 1960, with statue of St Joseph of Cupertino (?) replacing ceramic statue by Brother Berard.
A steeple with a single bell was built over the door, and the edifice was connected to the main building by an enclosed corridor. The style imitated Italian Franciscan designs, with rounded arches and low sloping roofs. In 1958 a refectory and kitchen were installed below the chapel, completing the project.

The main building housed the director, Father Victor Schoenberger, and the postulants and candidates. The postulants and candidates slept in dormitories on the second floor, six to a room. The second floor was strictly "cloistered", meaning females were forbidden access. The ground floor contained Father Victor's office, a library, a tailor shop, the infirmary, the recreation room, and a classroom. Adjoining the main building was a well-equipped workshop with a variety of woodworking tools.

Father Victor was an avid ham radio operator, and a room near the infirmary housed the bulky equipment that hobby required before the advent of transistors.

The Superior and the simply professed Brothers had rooms on the second floor of a large 3-storey white frame building commonly called the "white house". The third floor of the white house was used to store mattresses, and to dry laundry in the winter months, though it was thoroughly infested with mice.

Other important structures were the gym and solarium, the workshop attached to the main building, and the former barn. A spacious pantry adjoined the white house, and nearby was a very large root cellar that usually held mountains of potatoes, rutabagas, and apples.

Several outbuildings were located on the hillside above the friary, including a former chicken coop the friars renovated to house pigs, and a shed used to store suitcases belonging to the students.


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Cupertino Friary in 1957. Main building, workshop and Chapel in foreground.


The age of the students ranged from 15 to late 30s, and they came from many points in the Northeastern States and adjacent Ontario and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Candidates wore a grey tunic and white woolen cord with three knots. The habit of postulants was the same, except the tunic was black. Priests and Professed Brothers wore the complete Franciscan habit, with a cape and small hood over the tunic.

The curriculum for candidates and postulants included training for tasks and roles that Brothers traditionally performed. There were classes in catechism, chant, etiquette, cooking, and typing. Gerald Kirk from Welland, Ontario, later called Brother Bernard-Mary, taught the community the chants they would need for the Mass and for other offices. Afternoons and Saturdays were occupied with manual labor, while Sundays were mainly taken up with free activities - except for the cooks. Each week students took turns at a number of "obediences", such as cook, sacristan, bell-ringer, and server at Mass.

Weekdays began at 6:30, with Mass at 7:15. The chapel was arranged in typical pre-Vatican II fashion, with a high altar flanked by two side altars. The friars and students occupied pews facing the center of the chapel, three pews on each side. Candidates and Postulants used the pews closest to the middle. In 1958 Father Joel procured an antique pump organ ("harmonium") which was situated behind the back row of the visitors' pews.

Grand Silence, when the community completely refrained from talking, began after night prayers, and usually continued until after breakfast.

The years immediately following Vatican II saw an abrupt decrease in interest in the religious life, forcing the Conventual Franciscans to abandon Cupertino Friary after less than 12 years of operation. From 1968 to 1974 it housed the Watertown School of Commerce. It was then purchased by a fundamentalist religious group, the Spoken Word Assembly of God. In March, 1974, the white house was gutted by fire, and the remnants were demolished. The owners remained only until the summer of 1975, when they relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, taking with them the two carved stone eagles that for 25 years had flanked the flagpole. The eagles were sculpted in 1902 by Augustus Saint Gaudens for a monument in Watertown. Their present whereabouts is unknown.

From 1975 on, Cupertino Friary lay virtually abandoned. In January, 1992, vandals ransacked the property, smashing 25 windows and 5 doors. The Watertown Daily Times reported damage amounting to $3300. The owner was Harold R. Rounds.

Around 2006 the property became a horse farm consisting of 23.6 acres, about a quarter of the original acreage. Passersby now observe horses sheltering in buildings that once resounded with prayer and laughter. No one resides on the site, though Jefferson County records indicate the current owner lives nearby on Sandy Creek Valley Road.

CUPERTINO FRIARY TODAY (2012)


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The main building was originally two storeys with a flat roof. The first floor front held, from left to right, the recreation room, the main entrance, Fr Victor's office, the library and a cloakroom. The second floor front held a dormitory, a large washroom, another dormitory (unused) and Fr Victor's bedroom. To the right, set into the hillside, was a spacious fruit cellar, usually piled high with potatoes, carrots, apples, and turnips.





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To the south of the main building was the chapel, with kitchen and refectory beneath. This building was joined to the main structure by a dogleg corridor. The squat belfry had one bell, rung by pulling a metal cable. A masonry pedestal that once held a statue of St Joseph of Cupertino still stands near the north wall of the chapel.





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Gym and Solarium. To the far right of this photo is the main entrance to the friary from Sandy Creek Valley Road. The gym was used several times a week for exercise, especially in winter months, with volleyball the main activity in the first year. The building included a "solarium" on the south side, occasionally used to house overnight visitors. In Advent a stable scene would be erected on the road side of the gym. A large barn lay west of the gym, just visible in the photo. At the entrance to the driveway was a sign that announced "CUPERTINO FRIARY - Franciscan Fathers".







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Last artifacts? These images stood on the mantlepiece in the recreation room of the friary until August 26, 1958.




For more old photos click this doc file by Gerald Kirk.

See Also

Historic Structures in Jefferson County
Historic Structures in Watertown