St. Michael’s Mission in Conesus stands today as a relic of a seminary remembered by nearly everyone who lived in the region. New owners have been attempting to renovate the property under its new name of The Mission at Conesus.
by Chris Clemens
This terrain once graced by continental glaciers two million years ago has been home to numerous societies and cultures. Many of them have attributed some great spiritual association to the lands that we call home. When those glaciers moved south about 12,000 years ago it carved valleys and left hills in Central and Western NY. A few of those striations would later earn the area its moniker of the Finger Lakes Region.
The Finger Lakes is a region spanning a section between Central and Western New York. Many of the names on lakes and towns reference to a time when the Iroquois tribes ruled the land. The tribes that were each part of the Iroquois knew the land was special and particularly fertile. That same fertile land is now used to produce some of the top rated wine in the entire United States.
More recently in the 19th century, this region was home to a tremendous religious movement that played a large role in the Second Great Awakening. In an attempt to explain how such a movement grew so quickly, some have argued that the fertile lands of Upstate are inherently spiritual. If that were true, it could explain why a Roman Catholic order chose these hills in the Finger Lakes for their home.
A Mission In Conesus
I had read a little and found pictures of some grottos and a mission property in the Finger Lakes. Information was spotty, and photos were scarce, but it was enough to spark my curiosity. I knew it was overlooking Hemlock Lake and was once bustling with activity, but now sat vacant.
Every time I found even a morsel of information I became more enamored with the story. Some friends had mentioned it as something that was interesting, but no one had any solid information. Finding out more almost seemed like a challenge.
One unseasonably warm Saturday in early November was a perfect day to go exploring in the Finger Lakes. A friend and I set out to locate this mission house whose status appeared to be a mystery. The day ended up being way more than we had bargained for. Our expectations of doing a little reconnaissance turned into a pretty incredible adventure.
More importantly, we got a brief (but thorough) look into a slice of Finger Lakes history.
Finger Lakes Wine And Religion
The story of St. Michael’s Mission begins in 1865. At that time, Reverend Bernard McQuaid purchased land on a hill located on the Western bank of Hemlock Lake.
McQuaid founded one of the first wineries in the entire Finger Lakes region to supply local churches with altar wine. Since Hemlock is the only Finger Lake with a European name, McQuaid chose a name for his winery more in line those who once lived here. He named the winery ‘O-Neh-Da Vineyard’ in honor of the Iroquois that once called the region home.
Just a few years later in 1868, McQuaid would become Bishop when the Diocese of Rochester formed. It was in 1872 that McQuaid was able to finally realize his plan of a Finger Lakes winery. At that time, they opened with Ed Mulvaney as the foreman.
Soon thereafter the Rochester Diocese inherited the winery and property from McQuaid and took over operations. During Prohibition, sacramental wines were still legal to produce. Still, O-Neh-Da ceased its wine production until 1934 when the Repeal made alcohol once again a legal business model.
Today, O-Neh-Da is one of the two oldest wineries in the entire Finger Lakes Region. The business is still producing sacramental wines, but also has a consumer line open to the public.
Finding St. Michael’s Mission
We drove North on Mission Road past countless men in camouflage and bright orange vests carrying rifles. We realized that hunting season may not have been the best time to explore the back roads of Upstate. But, we had wondered about these underground grottos and sprawling mansion houses for too long. There was no turning back now!
Suddenly the tall, leafless trees and landscape opened up to reveal the purpose of our mission. We parked on the side of the road unsure of our next move.
The skeleton of St. Michael’s Mission was standing on the side of Mission Road. We looked up at what seemed like millions of windows on four floors of the huge campus. It felt like we should expect to see one drape in a window pulled aside and a creepy, ghost face look out and then quickly move out of sight.
My accomplice told me, ‘Go knock on a door.’ and I thought out loud, ‘Which one!?’
We approached the building in awe of its size and incredible vantage point. Finally, we made an ascent toward the steps passed the ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘No Hunting – Don’t Ask’ signs. We got braver and walked to the side of the building, then around back. That moment was interrupted by a sound that seemed could only have come from a cannon. Hunting season was most certainly well underway.
Behind the South building was a car and an open door to the garage. Beyond that we saw other cars and then people! With a few vehicles and a trailer backed up to a rear door, people seemed to be moving furniture out. The sight was especially surprising since everything we had read indicated that no one lived there. A couple smiles and friendly waves from them seemed proper assurance they weren’t looting.
After settling some confusion about the nature of our visit we broke the news that we weren’t the extra sets of hands they were expecting. Still, we got an opportunity to talk with a few people who told us more about the history of St. Michael’s Mission.
Building St. Michael’s Mission
Unfortunately, no one person seems to have the exact full history of the property. To make things tougher, different sources seem to have conflicting information on some details.
A newsletter from 1997 called ‘Yore Links’ by the Ganeasos History Keepers says that in 1924 the property was purchased by a group called the Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini). While checking with their headquarters, their information says the purchase occurred in 1936. The folks we talked to in the parking lot didn’t have any dates at all. It seemed thnoe mystery of the Mission was due in part to the fact that its story was already forgotten. It seemed that just a select few knew the story of what once was St. Michael’s Mission.
The Society of the Divine Word is a Roman Catholic order for men founded in 1875 in the Netherlands by Arnold Janssen. It’s also called “The Divine Word Fathers” here in the U.S., “Divine Word Missionaries”, “Societas Verbi Divini” and also just “SVD”.
The group first came to the United States in 1895, but acquired this property sometime in the early 1920’s. SVD soon after began construction on what is today a sprawling 170 room complex. With the South building’s completion in 1936, the Mission now had its high school. Those in attendance would study between four and fourteen years in that same building.
Closing St. Michael’s Mission In Conesus
In the 1950’s enrollment hit its peak with about 250 in attendance. That allowed the SVD to fund the construction the North wing in 1957. Original plans called for a cathedral joining the two wings, but it was later decided a modest chapel was best. With that decision, their plans were greatly downsized.
As it turns out, it was only a decade later that the SVD would feel a financial weight. In efforts to maintain as much as possible, they sold the winery in 1968 to a group in in California. Unfortunately, SVD never recovered financially in Conesus. They made multiple attempts at leasing the property to various groups for income. For a time it was the Livonia School District and then a holistic health center, (which remnants still exist from in the North wing). For a short stint in the 70’s, it was even an alcohol rehabilitation unit.
SVD later sold the entire 110,000 square foot building and property in 1985. The purchaser was a group called the Christ’s Church of the Restitution. These new owners had planned for the property to be a vacation retreat for spiritual leaders.
When that too didn’t pan out, it was donated to a church somewhere in the mid-2000’s. The recipients of that donation was who we found ourselves talking to that day.
A New Mission In Conesus
The Vision for Nations Fellowship is a Christian evangelical church based in Colorado Springs. They inherited the Mission as a donation, and now use it as an all purpose destination for their mission work. The Mission is housed year round by caretakers, but in the summer months groups of people from around the country come to study with other like-minded evangelical Christians.
One of the folks we talked to was happy to take a break from moving furniture and the three of us split off from the group to explore the property.
He explained as we walked that before they inherited the property, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester basically pillaged the entire property taking anything of worth or value. As a result, much of what we were about to see was merely a skeleton of the building. As we entered the rear of the chapel, it felt as though we were in a building that had been abandoned forever, and just recently someone was making an attempt to renovate it.
There were brand new looking rooms with fresh drywall and paint with a newly outfitted kitchen which all looked fantastic, and then on other floors were rooms that would’ve made perfect locations for the shooting of a horror movie. Many of the rooms and halls were in various states of renovation, and it was an odd idea to try and imagine that just 70 years ago the building was new, pristine and bustling with hundreds of people seven days a week!
From the basement gymnasium to a rooftop perch, the three of us walked and talked and explored nearly every area that was accessible. Our new friend explained that their church based out of Colorado Springs intends to make use of the property by offering tours, retreats, training, conference space and educational opportunities while partnering with other like-minded groups and communities to achieve their mission.
The Grounds At The Mission
The very first piece of history I had heard about the Mission was about the grottos. It was rumored that a priest had built a number of grottos, maybe even underground. But, that’s all I could get.
Admittedly, we were hoping to find the grottos even if the property was abandoned. After a while of walking through the Mission, we had to bring them up. The initial response was a tight lipped look of fear that indicated bad news. Apparently the previous organization also had entirely removed all statues and remnants from the grottos.
Still, he agreed to show us the remaining crumbs of what once were beautiful grottos.
The three of us walked out the back and then behind the garage toward the wooded area surrounding the complex. There, we stopped short in our tracks. Just behind the garage, SVD had taken a full sized school bus and plopped it down and built stone walls around it. They effectively turned a school bus into a shed.
While the school-bus-shed isn’t a huge part of the Mission history, it was way too fun to ignore.
Further into the woods on the South end of the property, we were guided down an unkempt path into a small ravine overgrown with brush and trees. A number of stone columns, once part of the Stations of the Cross, now sat like crumbling stumps among their natural habitat.
The Catholic Diocese had taken almost anything on them that could be removed back in 1985, so the ravine was filled with basic, bereft stone columns that told only a story of what used to exist.
The Grottos Of Conesus
We crossed a small stone foot bridge that looked as though it once offered a picturesque promenade through the ravine but now almost didn’t even seem safe to cross. Just past the bridge were a couple burial markers, which for me made this ravine even sadder. This ravine was once a spectacular work of art dedicated to peace and tranquility, which probably made it a perfect place to bury a loved one. Now it made me concerned the people buried here were forgotten entirely.
Grotto Of The Agony
Just beyond this spot was the first of the grottos that we had seen pictures of online. Sitting up a bit on the side of the hill, it was now crumbling with little indication of which grotto it might have been. With only the stone walls remaining, the grotto didn’t match the historical photos at all. There was a large cross that once featured a crucified Jesus, but now was a stone structure with a few marks indicating what used to be.
We now understood why we thought there were ‘underground’ grottos on the property as we approached a collapsing stone structure with wide eyes. Our guide warned that they were condemned so we couldn’t go in, but it was too difficult not to be curious. A walk-through shrine had been built with multiple rooms and even a second floor where once a number of different scenes from the Bible all existed.
There were occasional broken terra cotta tiles or a fake flower that had once adorned part of the grotto.
We were told that the group that now owns the Mission wants to fix up the area and make them once again a beautiful hillside setting. They have a tremendous task in front of them.
We kept walking a bit and came across another larger foot bridge, which we were told is often a common setting for class photos from when the SVD group was operating, but now most likely wasn’t even safe to walk over. Avoiding the bridge, we crossed back over the stream and had almost come entirely around which would have been the Stations of the Cross, but now was just a ring of those stone tablets.
The Rosary Grotto was closer to the Mission buildings and still pretty much in tact. A couple murals painted on walls and a spot for offerings were all that had remained.
I won’t speak for anyone else, but I have to admit I had a lot of feelings here. Someone had gone to a tremendous amount of work to plan and build this entire ravine. I was feeling a bit excited about exploring a new place and was wide-eyed at all the really incredible things that most people probably don’t realize exist. Then I was struck by a bit of sadness that most people probably don’t realize this all existed! The artisan dedication and hard work that went into creating a sacred space for SVD was quickly becoming a memory, and I’ve wondered how many of the students that attended St. Michael’s Mission even still remember (or, are even still alive).
The other feeling I had was around the fact that my friend and I had set out entirely unknowing of what the day would bring and not only did we cross off an item on our list of things we wanted to see, we also managed to make a couple new friends in the process. I didn’t mention it earlier, but everyone we talked to that day was about our age so it felt pretty natural to hang out with them.
We were grateful for all the people we met at the Mission that day for being super cool and hospitable. Though the Mission seems like it has seen better days, it appears that the current group calling it home is dedicated to making it the incredible gem it was once was.
If you’re interested in seeing the Mission or need a place to stay in the area, there is also an Air BnB available on site.
Sources and Additional Reading
SVD Seminary, Conesus on the Rochester Seminarian
Saint Michael’s Mission on HemlockandCanadiceLakes.com
Group Renovates former St. Michael’s Mission on Rochester Business Journal
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens