Valley seminary open since 1975
BARRYTOWN — The grounds of Barrytown are as plain as the hamlet’s name, with scenic fields enveloping a large, red, brick seminary building.
There is no mysticism or displays of decadence on the grounds of the Unification Theological Seminary in the Town of Red Hook. Not even a fence.
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There’s just the daily hum of students continuing their activities of prayer and classwork and contributing to the mosaic of small-town life.
”Sometimes, people will wonder what happened to Rev. Moon’s people,” said Michael Mickler, vice president and professor of church history at the seminary. ”We’re still here. It’s just that the majority of our students are international and the church has moved more of its focus toward international peace initiatives.”
The Unification Church, which is a relatively new religious order, began in South Korea in 1954. It was started by Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon, as a way of unifying other Christian religions.
Followers of the Unification Church refer to the Moons as the ”True Parents” and believe they were sent here as messiahs.
But, Sun Myung Moon’s teachings began to form much earlier. During Easter in 1935, Moon said he was praying in the mountains of Korea when Jesus appeared and told him to continue his work.
”Rev. Moon never wanted to be separate from Christianity,” said Rev. David Carlson of the Red Hook Family Church. ”When they refused to accept his teachings, he went on to start his own church.”
Moon started the seminary in Barrytown, which was formerly the Christian Brothers seminary, in 1975.
Although there are no hard numbers for membership, Carlson estimated that there are about 50,000 devout followers, associate members and other various people connected to the church.
The Red Hook church draws more than 100 families who live between Newburgh and Albany, he said. Attendance for the church, which convenes inside the seminary, also fluctuates depending on the number of seminary students in a given semester.
The seminary usually hosts about 120 students from all over the world, with the majority coming from Japan and Korea, where Unification has large bases.
Gillian Corcoran, the seminary’s assistant director of admissions, said many of the students are older people.
”We have many older students whose kids have gone on to college and they are doing this to fulfill a dream or as second career,” Corcoran said. ”But, we are starting to see more kids enter into the seminary. As more children from families that started in the ’70s and ’80s reach college age, I think we’ll start seeing more applying to the seminary.”
One of the reasons the seminary is so attractive to students is because of its proximity to Rev. Moon’s compound in Tarrytown. Mickler said it is not uncommon for students to wake up at the crack of dawn in order to get front row seats to one of Moon’s Sunday sermons when he’s in the area.
At one point, there were rumors circulating that the seminary was moving to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut or New York City.
Mickler said that was true at one time, but those plans dissolved after the seminary became more stable financially.
Hitoshi Onishi, a student at the seminary, hails from Japan and came from a Buddhist family. He joined the Unification Church in the 1970s and enrolled in the seminary last year.
”My parents were worried about my future,” Onishi said. ”I think there was some concern about the controversy surrounding the church and they were concerned about my future.”
Mickler said the church managed to weather the big storm of controversy that hit during the ’70s.
During that time, the derogatory term ”Moonies” was used for followers of Moon’s teachings. The church practice of organizing mass weddings, or blessings, and claims by some people that the church brainwashed its members, helped push the church into a negative light.
To this day, many organizations refer to the religion as a cult and refuse to accept it into the mainstream.
Family didn’t approve
Goya Ordonez joined the seminary in 2001 after a stint as a Catholic missionary. She said the idea of a unified church featuring people from many backgrounds is what attracted her to Rev. Moon’s teachings. But the switch to a new church caused a rift with her family.
”They didn’t know much about the Unification Church, except what they heard,” Ordonez, a native of Peru, said. ”I didn’t speak with them for a long time. It took a while for them to accept me.”
It also took a while for Ordonez to get used to her new environs in Red Hook.
”Everything is so huge here,” Ordonez said. ”I had kind of a culture shock. Sometimes, I’ll go food shopping, but most of the time I stay (on campus).”
Mickler said the seminary often organizes trips and community service projects for students, but many prefer to stay on campus because of their unfamiliarity with the culture.
”People are open,” Ordonez said, “but, at the same time, I’m unsure if this is what they’re truly thinking.”
Michael Tori, a professor in Marist College’s religious studies program, said the Unification Church has gained more acceptance in mainstream society for several reasons.
One reason was Rev. Moon’s indictment in the early 1980s for tax evasion. The indictment showed Moon was financially accountable to the government and to the public, Tori said.
Another reason the church has gained greater acceptance is that it has taken on several universally accepted causes such as the importance of family values in society and the formation of the Interreligious and International Peace Council.
The church has also given financial support to institutions such as the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and made acquisitions such as the purchase of the Washington Times.
”There was a fear that the (Unification Church) could end up as a Jim Jones-like phenomenon,” Tori said.
In 1978, Jones ordered hundreds of his followers to kill themselves by drinking a cyanide-juice concoction at the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.
”But, I think they’ve showed themselves to be more responsible,” Tori said.