A recent search for “Nashotah House” + ghost (not unsurprisingly) brought up my blog. Perhaps I was being bated, but I’ll bite anyway. Who can resist a good ghost story?
A wee history lesson will help to set the scene. Nashotah House is/was a seminary of the Episcopal Church nestled in the woods of what had been the frontier in Wisconsin. Established in 1842, it was originally conceived of as a monastery — an ethos it has tried to maintain ever since. It is a residential campus with both students and faculty required to live on the school grounds. I taught there from 1992 to 2005, long enough to see some strange things.
I admit up-front that I don’t know what to believe about ghosts. Very nearly ubiquitous as a cultural phenomenon (and firmly related to religion), ghosts permeate the human imagination. It is not at all unusual that ghost stories should thrive in a gothic setting like Nashotah; a simple web search will bring out the traditional hauntings of the place, especially those of the black monk. When I made my first visit to campus there were some distinctly creepy vibes that I wrote up as being non-priestly jitters amid the secretive life of the black-robed clergy. For my first two years I would be there for just part of the week, so instead of the usual faculty house to reside in, I was assigned to live in an apartment in Webb Hall. Known simply as “the Fort” for the solidity of its limestone block construction, Webb Hall had been built for a former dean, Rev. Dr. Azel Cole, as a grand three-story residence for the priest and his wife, Betsy. (Episcopal priests can marry, creating a steady siphoning of Roman Catholic priests who love both the liturgy and the ladies.) My apartment was on the third floor of the Fort, the highest point on campus. As the living dean showed me around, I had that oppressive, “something’s not right” feeling, despite the fact that the living room had been newly furnished and had a spectacular view across campus.
The dean pointed out the amenities of the spacious apartment, but when we reached the kitchen/dining area, we found something unusual. In the very center of the floor was a single dining plate, shattered. The dean muttered something about how the cleaning lady must have missed it on her rounds when she had prepared the apartment for my arrival. Otherwise the apartment was spotless. There was a door leading to a private chapel that Dean Cole had constructed. I was told it was no longer used since the only access was through the apartment, but the dean supposed I would be interested in seeing it. We stepped inside and it was coated with cobwebs and a thick layer of dead black-flies covered the floor, especially near the windows. The dean informed me that it was kept locked to prevent clandestine, unapproved Masses from being performed there by renegade priests on the faculty.
The creepiest room, however, was my bedroom. A spare room (for sleeping only, no doubt), furnished with only a new bed and side-table, it nevertheless felt crowded. When something finally did happen in that room it was after I had moved to a regular faculty residence.
[For the rest of the story please see the Full Essays page]