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‘A Possible School’ Gets a Novice Headmaster

Five months after St. Benedict’s Prep closed in June 1972, plans for “a possible school,” were beginning to take shape within Newark Abbey. On April 13, Fr. Albert Holtz, O.S.B. ’60, drafted, “Why We Have to Try Something,” a document that drove the decision to open a school and outlined three tenets (community, student leadership and experiential learning) that became the defining difference of the St. Benedict’s we
know today. 

The next day, November 14, the monastic community elected the first Headmaster of the unnamed educational venture. Fr. Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B. ’63 was just 26, newly ordained to the priesthood and had no administrative experience. What the novice school leader lacked in experience, he made up for with enthusiasm, practical wisdom and the conviction that God had a plan for Central Newark. 

“At that time, I was clearly a big mouth,” Fr. Edwin recalled in a 2005 interview for Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J. by Thomas McCabe, Ph.D. H’02. “I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew the kids in the city needed something from us and we were going to do it. I had no idea how I was going to take care of all the details and finer points, but I knew I lived in a community with people that knew how to get things done.” 

What the novice school leader lacked in experience, he made up with enthusiasm, practical wisdom and the conviction that God had a plan for Central Newark.

Described as the “antithesis of a traditional Benedict’s headmaster,” Fr. Edwin was open to new ideas that served the best interests of kids. The monks considered various names for the School in the planning stage, including “High Street Learning Center,” and finally settled on “St. Benedict’s School.” In the early days after the re-opening, however, Fr. Ed listened to parents of color when they asked why the School could not be named “St. Benedict’s Prep” as it had been when it served a mostly white population. He empowered fellow monks and faculty, which paved the way for so many Benedict’s distinctions: the 11-month school year, the Group System and rite-of-passage experiences like the Overnight, Spring Phase and The Backpacking Project. Over the course of five decades, Fr. Edwin fostered connections that strengthened the ties among generations of Gray Bees and turned strangers and acquaintances into friends and loyal supporters of The Hive.   

Always focused on the bigger picture, “Benedict’s is a sign of hope,” the Headmaster said recently. “We have kids from the city, kids from the suburbs, kids from all different shapes, sizes, colors, socioeconomic and faith backgrounds and we put them all together so that they work together, live together and begin to love each other. All kinds of connections are possible in a world where people are disconnecting from one another. It’s the spirit of the living God that moves in us, and if you allow it to move and not stifle it, surprising things can happen.”  

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