How these Benedictine monks’ vow of stability affects their students
Friday convocations at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, N.J., often resemble an old-school tent revival. After prayer, students rock side to side with linked arms, singing uplifting Gospel songs, and afterward echo the “Friday affirmation” to the person on the left or right: “I love you! You’re worth it!” they all shout in unison. This tradition continued virtually when the school took its classes online during the pandemic—and with good reason. According to Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B, a 1963 graduate of the school and its headmaster since 1973, this tradition of a daily morning meeting is “the most important part of the day.”
At morning convocation students take attendance, make announcements, pray, sing and dance. At convocation, students and faculty are reminded of why we come to school everyday. (I have taught at the school since 2014.) It is where our daily grind, from classes to sports practices, is imbued with meaning. It is the place where each student is reminded of his or her value in the community, and where each student’s place in the school’s legacy is reinforced.
After more than a year of having our lives disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the legacy of St. Benedict’s remains solid. Even as Catholic schools nationwide have faced a record 6.4 percent drop in enrollment—the largest single-year decline in the past 50 years—enrollment at St. Benedict’s has remained strong. A 153-year-old K-12 school run by Benedictine monks in downtown Newark, the school has made a name for itself for “allowing the students to lead the school,” and excelling in leadership, community building and athletics. The school has received further attention from a PBS documentary, a “60 Minutes” segment and a recent Quibi miniseries produced by the N.B.A. star Steph Curry.
After more than a year of having our lives disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the legacy of St. Benedict’s remains solid.
In the midst of chaos and attention, Father Leahy attributes the school’s success to its commitment to stability, which is one of the three vows that Benedictine monks and nuns take. Stability is rooted in the example and witness of St. Benedict himself, who determined that once a monk or nun joins a particular monastery, he or she will stay there for life instead of being transferred around. “Stability means growing where you’re planted,” says Augustine Curley, O.S.B., archivist and prior of Newark Abbey, the monastery that runs St. Benedict’s Prep, which he attended. “Being in Rome during its collapse and seeing the lack of stability, St. Benedict had that desire to settle into one place and stay there.”
That kind of commitment to place made the monastic communities attractive to visitors and prospective religious. In a society where things were on the verge of falling apart, people were thirsting for something lasting. “Throughout the history of monasteries, monks have always been in dialogue with the communities surrounding the monastery,” comments Father Leahy. “We commit ourselves to a particular geographical place in order to be a sign of faith.”
“Stability means growing where you’re planted.”
A monk since 1966, Father Leahy understands St. Benedict’s witness not to be one of retreating from the world, contrary to what much of the current interest in Benedictine monasticism may indicate. Instead, the monastic community’s existence as “set apart” from larger society is meant to be a source of hope to the world, inciting the inhabitants surrounding the monastery to ask themselves, “How are all these different people living together in unity?”, taking Christ’s words about Christians being distinguished “by how [they] love one another” as a model. “Seeing how we live in communion may give people the desire to think about God.”
Seasons of Change
When the Benedictines came to Newark from Bavaria in the 1840s, the city did not look like the densely populated urban center it is today. Newark was a manufacturing city and soon became known for its numerous factories during the rapid industrialization of U.S. cities in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1842, Nicholas Balleis, O.S.B., was the first Benedictine to be pastor of the newly opened parish of St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception. He, along with several other Benedictines who came over from Germany, ministered to the growing German Catholic population.
The monks’ Protestant neighbors were alarmed by the parish’s growing presence as more German and Irish immigrants entered its fold. Driven by xenophobic and anti-Catholic zeal, a group of concerned Protestants from the American Protestant Association with connections to the nativist Know-Nothing Party decided something had to be done to reclaim their turf. In September 1854, they stormed the parish church, smashing or burning several statues until they were chased out by monks and sympathetic neighbors.
Eventually, the monastic and parish communities were able to establish their presence comfortably as the neighborhood began to accept them. In 1868, the monks opened St. Benedict’s College, which later would be renamed St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, to respond to the neighborhood’s need for a school for Catholic working-class boys. In the first half of the new century, waves of Hungarian and Polish immigrants made St. Mary’s and St. Benedict’s their home.
St. Benedict’s Prep was directly affected by the surge in “white flight” after the 1967 race rebellion in Newark.
The neighborhood continued to change, and Black Americans moved into Newark from the South during the great migration. “Blacks in Newark’s Central Ward [where the abbey is located] had built thriving communities. There were churches, social clubs, small businesses,” says John Johnson, professor of history at St. Peter’s University and a St. Benedict’s alumnus from the class of 1993. As more Blacks were moving in, Newark’s ethnic white communities began moving into the rapidly expanding suburbs surrounding the city.
St. Benedict’s Prep was directly affected by the surge in “white flight” after the 1967 race rebellion in Newark. The neighborhood’s ethnic white Catholic population was replaced by Black Protestants and Muslims. As enrollment at St. Benedict’s dropped, the monks decided that the school was no longer sustainable. They closed the school’s doors in 1972.
“Though St. Mary’s parish was very involved in helping the Black community, the school was very much still catering to the children of the alumni,” commented Father Curley. “Some of the monks seemed not to be so open to the new experience God was putting in their face.”
“The school closed because of racism...though no one ever really said that,” Father Leahy said. He was only 27 years old and was five years into his monastic vocation when the school closed down. He found himself caught in a bitter divide between the monks determined to leave the school closed and move to another Benedictine monastery in the suburbs, and those who intended to stay in Newark and reopen the school for the neighborhood’s new Black population.
The school reopened its doors in 1973 as the High Street Learning Center, with Father Leahy as headmaster and Albert Holtz, O.S.B., as dean of academics. With a nearly all Black student body, the monks aimed to reimagine the school’s structure radically in order to meet the needs of the new population.
As the monks’ witness indicates, rootedness in a tradition that precedes oneself provides a stable ground to build a flourishing community.
But the monks, who were all white and who were mostly new to teaching, had little contact with their Black neighbors beyond the parish. They recognized that to be able to teach their new students well, they would need to listen to and learn from the students’ parents. It was at one of the several town hall meetings that the faculty hosted with the students’ parents that the monks realized a major problem with their own attitude toward their new students.
“Why was it good enough to be called St. Benedict’s Prep when it was all of you [white people]?” The words of Carl Lamb, the parent of a St. Benedict’s student, still ring loudly in Father Leahy’s ears 47 years later. “But now that it’s all of us, it can’t be St. Benedict’s Prep?”
Father Leahy “had no answer” except to say, “St. Benedict’s Prep will reopen tomorrow.”
“We had falsely assumed that Black people wouldn’t appreciate what we used to do here. No one thought to transfer to the new students the history of the buildings we used to walk in. It sent the message that they aren’t important enough to be part of that legacy.”
“The day we started calling it St. Benedict’s Prep was when the neighborhood kids became linked to the German and Irish and Polish kids that came before them,” remembers Father Holtz, novice master and S.B.P. graduate of the class of 1960.
"The brotherhood modeled by the monks is the exemplar for the brotherhood of the students.”
As the monks’ witness indicates, rootedness in a tradition that precedes oneself provides a stable ground to build a flourishing community. After a presentation Dr. Johnson gave on the role St. Benedict’s has played in Newark’s history, Father Leahy began to realize how important the legacy really was that the school was inviting the new black students to participate in. “People often ignore how difficult it is to maintain a sense of legacy when your ancestors were brought here in chains against their will.”
Dr. Johnson’s point about legacy highlights the way Benedictines vow stability not just to a place, but also to the people living in that place. It’s commitment to the people, insists Father Holtz, that allows St. Benedict’s Prep to thrive. “For us, the legacy is not about events. It’s about people. The legacy has names…. Legacy has to do with handing something on from one person to another. The same way we Benedictines take our Scripture personally with lectio divina, our legacy is personal.”
The personal touch of the monks’ vow of stability informs the ways students and teachers interact with each other in the school. “The monks provide a foundation to a lineage, and an assurance that the foundation is as permanent as things can be in this world,” said Michelle Tuorto, associate headmaster and science teacher. “The lineage of the students flows from this foundation. Legacy implies familial ties as well, and the brotherhood modeled by the monks is the exemplar for the brotherhood of the students.”
A Living History
These relationships are evident in the morning convocation. In convocation, students will sit with their “group,” which consists of an assortment of students from different grades, a leader and assistant leader, and faculty moderator. Each group is named after a significant figure from the history of St. Benedict’s. It is the group leader’s job to take attendance during “convo” and account for his group members’ absences. If an absent member is unaccounted for, Father Leahy will often delay taking attendance until the leader can locate the student (whether by calling the student themselves or his parents).
One of the most important features of convo is the impromptu storytelling by Father Leahy and returning alumni visiting the school. It’s during these moments that the students learn about the “living legends” from decades past.
“The Rule of Benedict is not so much legislation, but wisdom literature,” says Father Holtz. “‘Listen my son, to the teaching of a loving father....’ It’s much easier to build a legacy out of stories. That’s part of the reason the monks read the necrology of the day before dinner. And the same way that the older monks recount stories from the past to the younger monks, Fr. Edwin [Leahy] tells stories of students and teachers from St. Benedict’s Prep’s history. And the students can see how alive he gets when telling those stories! He makes it so that you want to be part of the story...you want to be part of this legacy.”
“Much like history itself, legacy also has to be cultivated,” insists Dr. Johnson. “St. Benedict’s Prep has been very active in cultivating its legacy. You can have all of the facts and data collected, but you still have to tell and retell the stories.” Stories can also be told that perpetuate lies and keep people down. “You can create a legacy of lies and racial tropes that are used to siphon people off. There can be a variety of narratives. This is why the way Father Ed [Leahy] repeats stories at convo is so crucial for the students—we need the kinds of stories that build us up.” Without this, Dr. Johnson said, young people can fall victim to being told lies about their people and their history.
Convocation is also a prime example of the school’s educational philosophy: to, as the late Mark Payne, O.S.B., always said, “never do for students what they can do for themselves.” The student leadership structure that gives shape to daily convocation is not the typical “student council” model. The school’s leadership team is responsible for making key decisions about the daily operations of the institution. Is this a model built for chaos? Yes, Father Leahy says. The idea is that it is from the experience of dealing with chaos together that students can learn real life lessons.
Giving students responsibility and allowing them to take risks is central to the monks’ mission of communicating to the students that they are each made in the image of God, and thus have dignity and a voice. “Students have to feel like they have some ability to influence the world in which they live and grow,” says Glenn Cassidy, associate headmaster and a St. Benedict’s alumnus of 1990. “In our schools, we can create more opportunities for students to have real responsibility for one another.”
Giving students responsibility and allowing them to take risks is central to the monks’ mission of communicating to the students that they are each made in the image of God, and thus have dignity and a voice.
Part of the emphasis on giving the students a voice is inspired by Chapter 3 of the Rule of St. Benedict, in which Benedict exhorts the abbot to heed the counsel of the younger, “for the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.”
In order to foster their sense of initiative and responsibility, students have to go through a series of rites of passage, starting from the very first week of school. At the “freshman overnight,” new students sleep in the school gym for a week, going through a boot camp-like initiation process in which they learn the school’s songs and history and partake in a number of activities that form their sense of dependence on each other. When walking through the hallways, freshmen walk with one hand on the back of the student in front of them. To further cement what they learned at the beginning of the year, freshmen close their first year of school with a 55-mile Appalachian hike where they learn the importance of “staying together” and that, as the school’s motto says, “whatever hurts my brother hurts me.”
A Lasting Legacy
Though I didn’t attend St. Benedict’s Prep as a student, I see my own journey into the school as the fruit of a legacy. In my role as a religion and philosophy teacher, I have discovered that the school is a community that fosters growth and mutual dependence not just for students, but for the teachers as well. In fact, I have found that my students take me more seriously when they see me depending on the community and allowing myself to be fed and nourished by it. They see that their teachers’ authority is not something that separates us from them. Rather, our willingness to give ourselves to the community makes them want to emulate our example.
I especially feel this to be true as a religion teacher and campus minister. Because of the monks’ commitment to hospitality, the school has become a home to students with a variety of religious backgrounds. Having students who are Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and agnostic has challenged me to think more deeply about the way I teach about the Catholic faith, and what my faith means to me.
I felt the impact of the school’s commitment to hospitality even further when it was decided to open a separate high school division for girls. St. Benedict’s Prep has been coed for grades K-8 and all-boys for grades 9-12 since the beginning: The school welcomed female students when they requested to join the school after their schools closed down last year. After six years of teaching boys, I found that I was once again being asked to allow the Benedictine spirit of hospitality to shake up my comfort zone and listen to what God was trying to show me through my new students.
Though I didn’t attend St. Benedict’s Prep as a student, I see my own journey into the school as the fruit of a legacy.
As much as opening the girls’ division has had bumps along the road, I have learned that because of the vow of stability, it is possible to live radical hospitality to both our neighbor and to the Spirit. Sure, being open to what’s new can give way to chaos. We as teachers need to be ready to change our plans at any moment. But when we face things together as a community with our feet planted in something greater than ourselves, we often find ourselves surprised by what we accomplished—or rather by what is accomplished through us.
This commitment to one another as a community shows its capacity to transcend time and space, especially when tested by loss and tragedy. Since starting six years ago, I have attended funerals of students, co-workers, monks, alumni and family members of other community members. The school has been known to bus the entire student body to a funeral.
This willingness to face even death together sends a powerful message to students. Dr. Johnson remembers attending the funeral of an upperclassman who was shot and killed. The following school year, he was randomly assigned that student’s locker. “Taking on his locker showed me that my success was predicated on ensuring that his legacy and everything he started at St. Benedict’s would not end.” Though he did not know the student well, he still felt a strong sense of kinship with him.
St. Benedict’s Prep’s legacy continues growing, as more and more students—both boys and girls—apply to join, from as close to Newark and from as far as Tanzania. With students applying from all over the world, the school has to continually expand its space and offerings to cater to a growing student body. This stands as a stark difference from the nearly 20 Catholic schools in the surrounding areas that had to close over the last year. What can Catholic schools, especially urban Catholic schools, do to keep their doors open?
Dr. Johnson points out that Catholic school administrators need to take shifting social and economic realities seriously. “Working class wages which used to be enough to cover tuition at private schools just aren’t there anymore. The shift to a service-based economy has resulted in people not being paid what they deserve.” In order to survive, Dr. Johnson posits that we ought to “radically reimagine” what Catholic education looks like and start thinking creatively about avenues for sustaining schools financially, like building up alumni networks and cultivating long-term donor commitment.
“If we don’t see investment as investment in people, we are going to see more schools close,” said Dr. Cassidy, who also points to the need for investing in strong counseling departments. Though many urban schools have “crisis counselors,” it’s not enough to “wait until a crisis hits to invest time into someone’s heart.” Dr. Cassidy instead suggests providing students counseling on a regular basis so that they can “address issues in their lives before they become a crisis and/or staying with that person through the recovery from a crisis.”
With students applying from all over the world, the school has to continually expand its space and offerings to cater to a growing student body.
The presence of a religious community on the school grounds is another form of human investment. It makes a difference when members of the religious community stay put for decades without being transferred. Father Holtz remembers that when he was a student, he could safely assume that the monks “would be there all the time.” Even as vocations decrease, the monks expect to continue their involvement in the school for years to come. Having attended, taught and lived within the community for over 50 years, students can count on him to share stories about students and events that span the decades. “Our legacy is not just something we hand down, it’s something living.”
In addition to monks, there are many lay alumni who come back to teach, and plenty of teachers who have remained at the school for several decades. “Schools should consider how to create environments where the average tenure of the faculty is 15 years,” recommends Dr. Cassidy.
Above all, says Father Leahy, urban areas do not need anyone to “invent” the perfect school. What is needed instead are educators who are willing to “listen with the ear of their hearts,” he suggests, borrowing a phrase from the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict.
“People think the solution for urban America is data-driven outcomes. Urban schools need legacy, not data and statistics. What we need is community, the ‘Upper Room.’ It’s about listening to people’s ideas and being receptive. It’s paying attention to what’s happening and asking what’s needed, and not coming in to invent ‘solutions.’”
Father Leahy finds himself further convicted of this whenever a former student who never received a diploma from St. Benedict’s comes back to visit the school, proving the relationships formed there go beyond the transactional. As Father Leahy said, “A diploma from St Benedict’s is only one way to be part of the legacy."