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In the Heart of Newark, Saint Benedict's Prep Thrives

The school closed for a year in 1972; it now has some 550 students

Though it is the seat of the local Archdiocese and boasts the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Newark numbers just five Catholic elementary schools and three secondary schools, one for girls, one for boys, and one co-educational, within the city limits. A challenging economy and changing demographics have closed numerous Newark churches and schools, their buildings repurposed or simply left. However, Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School, where monks watched the 1967 riots from the rooftop, continues to grow. A new book looks to the school’s history to understand its successful present.

"Somebody needs to write this," Thomas McCabe said to himself 10 years ago, when he looked around the now-thriving school. Some 95 percent of its graduates--mainly boys from Newark, Irvington and the Oranges --go to college, including many Ivy League and historically-black institutions, a statistic unimaginable in 1972, when the school closed its doors. McCabe, first a teacher then an administrator at the school, and now on the faculty at Rutgers University-Newark tells the story in his book, Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of An American Catholic Prep School. The book, now in its second printing, won the Hoffer Book Award for Culture in 2011.

The Benedictine tradition calls for service in a particular setting, rather than itinerant good works. The school was established in 1868 explicitly to serve the working-class Catholic population in Newark, and did so for more than a century, educating first-generation immigrants along with sons of alumni. When the student population dwindled in the 1970s, due to changes in the city and growth of suburbs, the school closed.

However, the monks' "vow of stability" kept them focused on Newark. The school reopened a year later with a handful of teachers and students. Its current student body numbers more than 550 in grades 7 -12, in addition to more than 50 faculty members.  More students apply each year that the school can admit, a rarity in Catholic schools of the present. Graduates attend selective colleges, many offered significant scholarship aid.

The school’s student body mirrors its community, as it is located in downtown Newark. It shares a campus with Saint Mary’s School, parish and the Newark Abbey, all across the street from the county courthouse. Nearly half of the students are from Newark; Irvington, East Orange and Orange supply another 20 percent of the student body. Some 60 percent of the student body is African-American, with about a quarter identified as Latino.

St. Benedict's 2011 Presidential Award winner Jose Santamaria, whose family moved from the Ironbound Section of Newark to Kearny just before he started high school, spoke of being honored by his school. "When I first heard that I was nominated, that was good enough," said Santamaria, the morning after winning the Award. "I thought there were more deserving candidates. But the feeling I had when they announced my name was unbelievable. It's still hard to put into words."

Indeed, a description of the school’s mission notes that in their success, many students “overcom[e] personal obstacles and challenging backgrounds and the enduring legacy of poverty.”  More than half of the student body receives financial aid; that message is clear on the school website, which reads, “The monks of Newark Abbey and the school’s Board of Trustees are determined that financial issues should not exclude any student who sincerely desires to attend St. Benedict's from coming to school here.”

Ryan Rhodes, Class of 2011, who is headed to Lehigh University, said in June, "I owe Benedict's my life. I will miss this place dearly and take all the values it has built for me next year to college.

At the same time the school offers aid, it asks a great deal of students. Admissions materials and the school profile describe a “demanding but supportive, tough but caring” environment. The curriculum is described repeatedly as “rigorous,” with an 11-month academic year that began this week.  Classes meet for 80-minute periods; summer reading is mandatory and includes works such as The Iliad and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; and students adhere to a dress code.  

Kieran Lenahan, Class of 2011, who graduated with a 3.92 grade point average and will be attending Davidson College in North Carolina, said in June, "Being a part of Benedict's is something you can not fully understand unless you've experienced it yourself.” Lenahan lives in South Amboy and commuted 40 minutes each morning and afternoon. "Benedict's is the only place where I could be pushed beyond my limits and encouraged to try things that I never thought I could do."

The basis of Saint Benedict's Covenant is this:  "Anything that hurts my brother, hurts me. Whatever helps my brother, helps me." This belief extends to a school honor code, signed by each member of the community, and classrooms and lockers left purposely unlocked. At the same time, the school is no ivory tower; its school philosophy acknowledges urban realities.

“While Saint Benedict's is at the center of all that is the city of Newark, we are trying to be an exception to much of what goes on around us,” reads the philosophy. “We are committed to educating Newark's citizens and its future leaders, imbuing them with a sense of the city's promise as well as its problems, of its future as well as its past. The school's continued presence over the past century is a sign of hope to the people of Newark, and we are striving with them to aspire toward a vision of greatness for our city and its people.”

So how does this school, which asks much of its students and is guided by a sixth-century covenant, continue to thrive?  McCabe sees the pull of tradition in Catholic education at St. Benedict's. He explains that what draws students and their parents to St. Benedict's are "tradition, the safe school environment, the excellent extra-curricular activities, and the rigorous academics." 

However, McCabe notes that schools such as St. Benedict's offer a sense of community, as well, that may be their greatest strength throughout the decades. "Convocation," a daily morning meeting, "draws the community together for prayers, ritual, a message from the headmaster," according to McCabe.

"The message," McCabe adds, "is that if you, as an individual, don't show up, the school is lesser for it."   Indeed, without St. Benedict's, says McCabe, the community –whether defined as Newark, New Jersey or the broader world-- would be lesser, too.

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