Publisher Tom Woodman interviews Rev. Philip Allen, pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Indian Lake
The Reverend Philip Allen is pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Indian Lake as well as St. Paul’s in Blue Mountain Lake and St. Joseph’s in Olmstedville.
He grew up on the family dairy farm in Peru, New York, entered seminary in Ogdensburg, and spent his career in parishes of the Ogdensburg Diocese in northern New York. He has been in Indian Lake for three and a half years and has also served in churches in Saranac Lake and Ausable Forks, among other communities.
He has been an avid hiker and at the age of eighty-one is one hike short of completing the Adirondack Forty-Six for the twenty-fifth time.
You grew up on a farm that had been in the family for generations. Did you think about becoming a farmer yourself?
I did. I got a calf in 4H from the Lake Placid Club in 1947, a registered Holstein, and she’s the direct ancestor of every cow my brother has. He has about 280 head. They’re all her grandchildren.
Why did you choose to go into the seminary?
The farm was much too small to make a living at it. What I wanted to do was to become a priest. I now have a garden on the portion of the farm that’s just inside the Adirondack Park.
What was it about the priesthood that attracted you?
Lots of things. I thought it was a good, purposeful life. And it has been. I’ve enjoyed all of it very much.
How long have you been here?
Three and a half years. I had two churches in the beginning: St. Paul’s in Blue Mountain Lake and St. Mary’s here. A third parish, twenty-five miles from here in Olmstedville, town of Minerva, was without a pastor when their pastor retired last September. The diocese assigned it to me, planning to discontinue weekly Masses and just hold services for funerals and weddings. But I figured that I could go there, and the people here were accommodating. The people in Olmstedville were accommodating about it. So we set up a Mass schedule where I go on Sunday and again for a midweek service. It’s working out very happily.
So between Olmstedville and Blue Mountain Lake you’re on the road a lot.
Yes. I consider the weather quite a bit. They have a calling committee down in Minerva. If the weather is real bad I can call somebody, and they’ll tell one another, and I won’t come. So far I haven’t had to use that.
What was your first church?
I was an assistant at the cathedral in Ogdensburg, which was a good experience.
How often have you moved?
Being an assistant in those days it was basically every three years. Twelve years, four assignments. Ogdensburg Cathedral, then St. Bernard’s in Saranac Lake, St. Peter’s in Lowville, Holy Name in Ausable Forks. Going from larger towns to smaller ones was the trend there. In the meantime I got the habit of doing lots of hiking. I was doing the Forty-Sixers every year. It involved about twenty-three trips a year, combining peaks. All seasons. I’ve done them twenty-five times, but there’s one mountain yet that I need for twenty-five.
Allen. I need to do that again.
Did you have partners who were hiking with you?
Sometimes. Not regularly. There are a couple of men that I conducted through their attempts to be Forty-Sixers.
Why have you been so committed to hiking these mountains?
I got in a rut, I guess. But I did other things. After doing the Forty-Six twice, I did the Appalachian Trail. That took seven years of vacations. I did it in sections. I did the Long Trail in Vermont, the high peaks of New Hampshire, those of Maine. Then I felt like doing something exotic, so I went to Africa and hiked up Kilimanjaro in Kenya and some other trips. Then I fell back on just doing the Adirondacks again and again.
Are there particular memories that stand out?
One time I rescued a guy. It was back in the sixties, in December. They had lean-tos then at Indian Falls on the trail up Marcy. There were no tracks in the snow so nobody had been up that day. Well, in one of the lean-tos I found a fellow and he hadn’t been out, even to get water. He had the idea that he wanted to end the year by fasting and doing yoga. So I climbed Marcy and came back and gave him my peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. I worried about him, and I went back a week later just to go that far. It was almost Christmas. He was still there. Nobody had come along in a week. That wouldn’t happen nowadays. He had been eating brown rice, and he’d given up eating completely for five days. His sleeping bag was thin. He had put on all the socks he had and plastic bags around his feet. And he had loafers with rubbers on them. They had frozen. They could have been wooden. I persuaded him to come out. Getting his feet into those shoes was really hard. He stepped out of them and didn’t even know. His feet were numb. I got him out of there.
He could walk?
Yeah. He could walk but unsteady. I put him up a few days. He spent a lot of time in the bathtub, soaking his feet. He got sick on the first meal.
His feet recovered?
Yeah. I gave him new boots.
And a little advice?
A little advice. I sent him off to Boston where he was from. He sent a note back. He was all right.
If you hadn’t encountered him there?
I think he would have died.
I’m curious about what you get from the hiking, what draws you to it. Is it the physical exercise or is it a spiritual experience?
Partly each. I compose talks as I walk. I compose sermons, thinking things over. It’s a way of being rooted where I am. I think that’s important for everybody living in the Adirondacks to be connected to what we have here.
Do the people in your community share that connection?
Quite a bit. There are so many ways to be connected to where we are. Gardening is one. Enjoying the woods. Taking in what grows naturally such as the berries, the greens, some mushrooms if you dare. If you know what you are doing. I don’t hunt, but I gladly accept what the hunters and the fishermen will offer me. That’s a connection, too. Hiking, walking is a good way to feel grounded where you are, with the weather and varying conditions. The mountains, even though you do them repeatedly, they’re never the same. Every day is different.
Do you make nature and the environment a theme in your ministry?
Not to be obsessive about it. I respect that many people have different ways to do basically the same thing. To stay connected spiritually and physically with where we are. I’m involved with the farmers’ market, and I think that’s important here. We search and scrounge to get farmers to come because it’s miles. The main one comes all the way from Hope, way down south of Wells. Sure glad to have him. I partner with a woman here, and both of us have gardens in the community garden. We don’t sell from that because that’s meant to be community. We have another piece of land that the owner tills for us, and we grow things to put in the farmers’ market. And I have my brother’s farm to go to. I have a big garden there in the part that’s in the Park. That’s a hundred miles from here. I overdid it last year, and now I’ve got to get a carpal-tunnel operation. Hoeing did it.
How big a garden is it?
The better part of an acre.
What do you do with the produce?
Farmers’ market and a lot of squash and pumpkins that I donate to the church groups. When we have the moose festival we have a pumpkin and squash sale, and they make about a thousand dollars. That helps their charities.
Do you have a youth group in the churches here?
No. We don’t have many children in the community. There are precious few. We’re trying to work with them. Make good community citizens. The school does. There are Scouts here. The fire department gets them when they get to be old enough and helps make community citizens out of them, and that’s important. Maybe 80, 90 percent will move away.
Is that a troubling trend for the community?
Yes. We still get people who have visited here for years and are able to come up and retire here. A second home becomes a retirement home for a lot of these people. All these people are very good community citizens. These three right here in this photo are the Leonards. They decided that they had to leave last fall and go down to Queensbury to be closer to what they have to offer there, particularly doctors, I think. Between them they did more for this community than any three people we know of. The Garden Club, library, the theater. She played the organ in our church. Never missed. Their houses are on Main Street, empty now. There are quite a few empty houses on Main Street. It’s a worrisome trend that there’s a decline in the population.
It sounds like people may come here in retirement, but when they reach a certain age they need to move closer to services.
Some do. There’s quite an effort made for health care here. We have Hudson Headwaters and Helping Hands, which has been a great home-care service for a long time. Helping Hands is being taken over by an outfit in the Glens Falls area. There’ll still be a service.
What role does the church play in trying to build community or keep community spirit going?
We have one group that’s called SMILE. It’s an acronym standing for St. Mary’s Indian Lake Energizers. Men and women meet once a month, keep track of people who might need help. They have an angel fund and send money to people who are down on their luck, maybe having to travel a lot to the hospital fifty-five miles away. Help them with gas money. We have another church organization that raises fuel money for people. Outright charities like that.
Do you need a certain number of members to keep a church viable?
Well, I suppose. Since we’re sharing so many of the expenses now between three churches it’s not the money so much. It’s the shortage of clergy.
Is that what led to you being pastor for three churches?
Oh, yeah. In Hamilton County we’re only two priests who reside here. And here I am also working in Essex County with this church in Minerva. The church in Long Lake is served by a priest from Newcomb in Essex County.
In your time as a priest in the Adirondacks have you seen big changes in the church and its role in the communities?
Oh, yes. In my first parish in Ogdensburg I was in the rectory where there were seven priests. Four of us worked in the parish. Now there is one priest working in the parish. There were so many Catholic schools. Most of my life as a priest I’ve had some connection with a Catholic school. Out of fifty-six years only six years were without a Catholic school. Now all of those schools are closed except for the one in Saranac Lake. I’m sorry about that.
Is that because there are fewer children.
Fewer children, greater expenses. No religious personnel—sisters—anymore. Those three reasons.
What does it mean to not have these schools? Is it harder to keep families involved with the church?
Yes, it is. In one way there’s no separation now between the families who chose to send their kids to Catholic schools and those who chose to send them to public schools. In that way you don’t have to work with reconciling that distinction, that separation of families by school. On the other hand the connection of most families to the church is much less.
Are there fewer churches as well?
Yes, there are. There have been some that were parishes, then they became missions linked to another church, and then some have been reduced to just an oratory where the priest goes only for weddings, funerals, and an occasional Mass.
This time of year, when it’s mostly year-round residents on a Sunday, how many people would you have for a Mass?
Well, starting with St. Paul’s in Blue Mountain Lake, we’re averaging twelve to fourteen on Saturday night at 6:30. Some of the people who are older are coming over here in the daylight instead. Here, we have two Masses, and we’re about forty at one Mass and fifty at another. Down in Olmstedville we’re doing about fifty-five to sixty.
Do the big historical tides that the church experiences, whether it’s a new pope and a new way of speaking from Rome, or social issues like the role of women or gays in the church, do you feel that at this level in these small communities?
Not as strong here, no. There are people I’m well aware of who do have issues that you’re talking of, but they don’t seem to say an awful lot that I hear.
Would you say it’s more of an individual experience than with a larger church?
Probably. I think our people here are generally welcoming and open. We don’t have great reactions of any sort. We try to be very inclusive with the women. We work on that.
As you think of the church in the Adirondack Park what do you see in the future?
I’m afraid that unless somehow with imagination and creativity we can come up with more personnel for leadership we are not going to be able to supply near as many Catholic churches. The trend is ongoing, and I don’t see any stopping it.
This trend is driven by difficulty in finding clergy?
Partly that and partly too because of the aging of our communities, the diminution of younger families, and the drop-off of people making churchgoing really significant in their lives.
In the face of those trends how can the church maintain its mission here?
I think about that. But the only way I know is doing as I’m doing and supplying these people with pastoral care, visiting them. I have been in almost all the homes of the people in Olmstedville since September. That’s what I feel I can do. I know there are other ideas of getting more lay involvement, and I hope they’re taken because we have some very capable, dedicated people who could help. But there are not many young men becoming priests. I’m noticing that there are mature people, forties, fifties, sixties, who are doing so much leadership now. I hope that they can be put in positions where they can do more than they are already doing.
I know this is a big question at the highest levels of the church, but is there a way of bringing women into leadership positions, not necessarily as priests? Would that help with this trend?
Sure, and that is going on. In our diocese the staff includes quite a few very competent women in leadership.
Do you see similar trends in other churches?
There are three other churches in this community, two Baptist ones, and the pastors of both are resigning. They’re talking of merger because they’re both Baptist. There’s a Methodist church, and there’s a woman who serves them. She does other jobs too. They wouldn’t be able to have a full-time pastor with all that a pastor would need to be supplied with, retirement money, health-care money. They’re too small.
Is there any reason for optimism?
It’s above my pay grade to suggest this, but these small communities of faith really need to be served where we are. My mother was from a small community. They got Mass once a month, that’s all. But the priest gave the parish the whole day when he came. Consider that rather than just a visit from a priest an hour in one place and an hour at another and an hour at a third place, which is the way we are going now.
And another is the training of people who can do the parish work or run the services on these other Sundays. One of my cousins who was a priest went to Alaska in retirement, and he enjoyed it very much. He and two other priests covered thirty parishes all over the place. On a single Sunday they might do two or three. On the other Sundays there would be a lay person there, chosen by the community, more often a woman than a man, and she would take care of giving the homily, sometimes supplied by the diocese. So a community of faith remained vibrant even though priests were scarce.
It sounds like that approach could translate into the Adirondacks.
Yes. I think there will always be a lively little Indian Lake here. There are many people who enjoy supporting everything. They keep it going.