by Ray Levato
In The Conesus Story, 1924 – 1984, John Morgan wrote about St. Michael’s: “Conesus was the cauldron in which saints and sinners cooperated sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly because of the shared vision of the Divine Word, who by bringing us to live together at this location and time we became witnesses to an integrated and inclusive society that we would carry and duplicate in the four corners of the globe.”
Sometimes the best way to enjoy the Finger Lakes is to just hop in the car and set out for places unknown. A back road. A waterfall trail. A town you’ve never visited before.
It’s a fun way to enjoy the excitement of exploration and the joy of discovery. Because you never know what lies around the bend or over the next hill – which is what happened to me one sunny Saturday afternoon.
I was driving on a back road on a hill overlooking the west side of Hemlock Lake when suddenly it jumped out at me! Two large, four-story school- and dormitory-style buildings that looked like they belonged on a college campus. But what were they doing out here?
This is the former St. Michael’s Mission, a Catholic boarding high school and seminary that opened on the scenic hillside during the Great Depression.
There wouldn’t be a St. Michael’s if not for the vineyard and winery of Bishop Bernard McQuaid (1823-1909), the first Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Rochester. He planted the vines on land near his summer home to make sacramental wine. By 1905, news accounts say, the 80-acre vineyard was annually producing 20,000 gallons of altar wine.
Bishop McQuaid willed the property to St. Bernard’s Seminary, and the Diocese eventually sold it to the Society of the Divine Word, a worldwide Catholic missionary organization with 7,000 priests and brothers, and seminarians.
Students moved into the first building in 1937. A chapel was added in 1946, and in 1957 the second wing doubled the number of seminarians studying there. The complex eventually totaled 170 rooms. Enrollment peaked at about 200. Students were required to work in the vineyards, and many also participated in sports.
But times changed, and by 1969 the society decided to move all students to other locations. Only a few retired priests and brothers remained at the mission, which was used for church retreats for many years.
The old seminary was also used as a temporary junior high for the Livonia school district for two years, and a holistic health center in the early 1980s. Rarely has it ever been empty or abandoned.
The Divine Word eventually sold the complex in 1985.
The current owner, Vision for The Nations Fellowship, a Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, inherited the mission as a donation.
Ordained minister and host Korey Buzzell says the church was decommissioning the property when he offered to maintain and restore it in 2015. He has formed a new group and is arranging to purchase the complex.
The renovated 1941 convent house – used as a guest house – is listed as a rental on Airbnb as The Mission at Conesus. Former seminary rooms in the south wing are also now open, complete with private baths and kitchen facilities.
“We opened the main mission building spaces in an effort to save these facilities from the ravages of time,” says Buzzell. “Our aim is preservation for future generations.”
The monks built an elaborate cave-like stone grotto into the hillside next to the mission – The Rosary Grotto. It had eight separate vaulted rooms with religious statues and icons depicting Bible stories and celebrating the mysteries of the rosary. Over time, the statues were removed, but remnants of the old grotto remain.
In 1872, Bishop McQuaid chose O-Neh-Da as the original name of the vineyard and winery out of respect for the Seneca name for Hemlock Lake. They are now part of Eagle Crest Vineyards, which still makes sacramental as well as table wines, and is within walking distance of the old mission. Hiking trails also link the mission to nearby Hemlock Lake and state forest land.
Visitors can take tours of the facility and learn firsthand of the history of St. Michael’s Mission. “We offer tours seasonally, as available, though house guests routinely can tour otherwise closed-off areas,” says Buzzell. “We are also careful to explain that it isn’t public property. At times we have problems with curiosity seekers in the grottoes.”
Buzzell is raising funds and applying for grants to do the necessary repair work to restore the mission. In a nod to 62 years of St. Michael’s history, he says, “Living here, I feel like I am walking in the footsteps of giants.”
Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV, Ch. 10 in Rochester.