TALK OF THE TOWN

by Ed Reilly

  Teilhard de Chardin and the CIA

"On 10 April, 1955, Easter Sunday, Pere Teilhard collapsed to a sudden stroke just as he was about to have tea. He was walking over to the table when he fell like a stricken tree .... The funeral was on Easter Tuesday, a grey, rainy day. Ten of his friends were present, but I was the only one to accompany him on the 90-mile journey from New York to Saint Andrew on the Hudson. There he was buried, with a ceremony whose only distinction was its poverty, in the cemetery of the Jesuit novitiate for the New York Province."

-Pierre LeRoy, SJ, biographical preface to The Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin





If you think that the CIA is in McLean, Virginia, you are half right. One of the two is, but the other is in Hyde Park. And in the latter case, the initials stand for Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency. I offer such central intelligence based on reminiscence of a trip of a week ago. Jean and I took a day of vacation and joined the Niskayuna Recreation Department's excursion to Hyde Park. She was looking forward to the stop at Montgomery Place along the way, but, initially at least, I was anticipating only the gourmet lunch at the Institute.

My priority changed just a bit when Councilman Rich Holt, himself from Poughkeepsie, a stone's throw from Hyde Park, told me that the Institute contained the gravesite of one of my scientific heroes, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. How did he come to be there, of all places? Well, it seems that the lesser known CIA, after outgrowing earlier sites elsewhere, bought the former Jesuit monastery St. Andrew-on-the- Hudson in 1972. All buildings were soon converted to new uses, but the graveyard remains intact. So I resolved to check it out.

Hyde Park is just an hour and a half south, or at least that's all it took by bus, a beautiful new cruiser on its maiden voyage. Fellow passengers asked me if the Town's new Community Center bus would be as nice. "Just as nice," I said," but not nearly so big." That seemed to satisfy while we wait the 10 weeks for delivery.

The main CIA building and former monastery is most impressive. Students decked out in immaculate white coats and chef hats were everywhere. Lunch came first, centered on a delicious salmon entre, and then an hour tour.

I knew that the bookstore would be well stocked with cookbooks and the like, and it was, but I expected to find representative works of Teilhard - The Phenomenon of Man, perhaps, or Hymn of the Universe. No such luck. Teilhard was a paleontologist well respected in the scientific community, but he also dabbled in philosophy. The Church was wary of his writings in his lifetime, but has long since made peace with his soul.

Our student tour guide did a great job. As we went down one corridor after another, we could see into many a busy classroom. As a former professor myself, I was struck by how uniformly attentive the students were. This may not be surprising when watching a lab course where every student has something to do, but it was also true of the students listening to lectures.

We passed some nice plaques labeled Culinary Hall of Fame. Among those enshrined were Julia Child, Baron Hilton of the famous Hiltons, J.W. Marriott, Jr., and James Robinson III of the company that issues my American Express card. (I quickly checked my wallet to make sure I hadn't left home without it.) Just by coincidence, of course, all had endowed some room or wing of the Institute.

The names of the instructors at the entrance to their classrooms were amazingly apt. One was named St. John-Grubb. Another, Patey (Paté?). And - you won't believe this - a certain E. Saucy taught Hot Foods. (His first name must be Extra.) The Institute itself is not above wordplay. Its colorful brochure boasts through the 1980s, we developed cutting-edge programs in seafood fabrication and cookery." Sharp people, they.

I asked our guide what the tuition was for the four-year course, and he said that it was about $12,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. Not bad. A bargain, really, because Institute grads are in great demand. We passed a large room where students were making a lot of dough so they could graduate and aspire to do the same.

Finding a free half-hour in our schedule, I inquired about the graveyard. "Go to the Security Office," I was told, "and they'll give you the key." The key having been loaned with my driver's license as hostage, I followed the prescribed path into an area marked Maintenance and came to the locked gate. The lock yielded easily, but the rusted gates did not part willingly. Inside, just beyond a wooded area that screened my first glance, I came upon row after row of identical, thin, greyish white tombstones, about 200 of them. Each marked the resting place of a Jesuit who died some time between 1905 and 1970 or so, and each displayed the last name and Latinized first name of the person commemorated. How would I ever find Teilhard's?

"Way in the back," the security guard had said, and sure enough, it was, in the second last row. The tombstone was no different than any of the others, but leaning against it was a colored picture of Teilhard, whose Romanesque features reminds one of his compatriot of 300 years earlier, Blaise Pascal. And I was thrilled to find that the name on the stone next to Teilhard's was Thomas Reilly, a long lost great uncle, I'd like to think.

So how appropriate, I wondered, was it that this great French paleontologist and Christian mystic was buried at a culinary institute? I searched Father LeRoy's preface from which I quoted earlier for a clue. The best I could do was this short excerpt from a passage describing the famous ebulliently optimistic Teilhard personality. "He was lively and gay and appreciated good cooking."

May he rest in peace.

4/22/94

Postscript: The philosophic idea for which Teilhard is most noted is his concept of a noösphere, a sphere of knowledge that he predicted would envelop the earth as humankind progressed toward a state of higher union with God called the omega point. If only Teilhard had lived until this day, I just know that he'd be spending a good part of each day surfing cyberspace on the Internet.