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Amazing Grace

Celebrating Fr. Edwin’s 50th anniversary as Headmaster

Even on a day as auspicious as November 14, 2022 — Fr. Edwin’s 50th anniversary as Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep — speeches weren’t necessary. The presence of Senior Group Leaders at Convocation, a long line of them spanning the late 1970s to the present day, spoke volumes about the tenure of Fr. Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B. ’63, and the community forged on his 50-year watch.

“This anniversary means everything to us,” said Jesse Alexander ’81, President of the Alumni Association and a former Senior Group Leader. “I don’t have classmates, I have brothers. Fr. Ed is a big part of that. We were the first class to do the Overnight and other traditions. The School trusted us to pass on everything we learned to younger students.”

Headmaster of What Exactly?

Fun fact. When Fr. Edwin was appointed Headmaster in the fall of 1972, he was placed in charge of a school barely conceived. St. Benedict’s closed the previous June. The Benedictine monks who remained took different jobs. Fr. Albert Holtz, O.S.B. ’60, taught at Saint Vincent Academy. Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B. ’59, worked at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Fr. Philip Waters, O.S.B. ’63, drove a truck. “We were all over the place, which made it virtually impossible for us to live a common life,” Fr. Edwin recounted. “It was obvious what the city needed: an educational venture.”

That December, the monastic community repaired to Yulan, N.Y., to formulate a possible school. Fr. Albert, a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, drafted the 28-page guide that drove deliberations. Two weeks later, Fr. Albert produced a six-page proposal outlining a structure and principles that came to define and distinguish a Benedict’s education: Community, Student Leadership, Tending to the Heart and Experiential Education.

“Project-based education was a hot thing in the early 70s,” said Fr. Albert. “The idea was that you learn by doing. Rather than study geometry from a textbook, you might have kids build a geodesic dome.” While project-based learning made practical and pedagogical sense, the monks also knew they had to balance the avant-garde with traditional coursework. Consequently, the innovative three-term, 11-month academic year was established: Summer Phase, Fall-Winter Term and Spring Phase, the five-week period in May devoted solely to hands-on learning.

The Odd Couple

By their own admission, the monastic brothers made an odd couple. Fr. Edwinwas the charismatic front man who recruited students, consulted with alumni and talked up the new school with city officials. It was up to Fr. Albert, “the brains of the operation,” to turn big ideas like handing decision making over to students into functioning reality. The unlikely pairing worked fantastically.

Fr. Albert described an early example of their dynamic, when a funeral attended by the monks pushed Convocation to 11:00 a.m. When they returned, “About one-third or more of the kids were absent,” Fr. Albert recalled. “Fr. Edwin tells the kids who are there, ‘Let me know when everyone shows up,’ and he walks out.” Fr. Albert took the opposite tact, subtly suggesting to the flummoxed students that they get on the phone and locate classmates. One hour later, Convo began. “The next time we tell kids we’re going to have a delayed opening, they’ll show up because they know Fr. Edwin is crazy enough not to start until everybody’s here,” Fr. Albert continued. “That was a really good example of his style.”



‘It’s About All of Us’

Community and Student Leadership really took off when Fr. Mark Payne, O.S.B. ’69, entered the monastery. He was the architect of the Group System, a structure designed to encourage student leadership, as well as the Backpacking Project, the 55-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. A rite-of-passage first established in 1974, Fr. Mark often spoke of The Trail as “Learning how to work with other people to get tough things done.”

Allowing kids to make mistakes and learn from the experience is an essential part of growing up, he emphasized in an interview recorded before his passing in 2016. “It’s not about me, or you,” Fr. Mark stated.

“It’s about all of us, making our way to caring for each other and being responsible for each other. Not a whole lot of places recognize this. When you look back on it, it’s not necessarily fun, but it’s more than worthwhile.”

True legacies outlast their creators, and Benedict’s is no exception. The bedrock principles Fr. Edwin, Fr. Albert and Fr. Mark put into place, together with the monks of Newark Abbey and lay people, have grown and evolved beyond their original scope. Leadership training now spans three years with the Water Adversity Challenge (WAC) for UDIs and the WILD (Wilderness Inspired Leadership Development) expedition for UDIIs, following the Overnight and Trail.Accountability to community can be instilled as early as kindergarten since St. Benedict’s incorporated the Elementary Division. A group of determined young women from the former Benedictine Academy, who were exposed to student leadership through a partnership with The Hive, advocated for and established the now thriving Girls Prep Division.

Rather than take credit for any of it, Fr. Edwin compares the against-the-odds successes of St. Benedict’s to the New Testament story of Jesus feeding 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. “Somehow the ability was given to us from the mystery of God, to be able to respond to the needs and requests of the people around us,” he stated. “Together, we’ve accomplished things we never thought were possible to do.”


“50 Days for 50 Years”

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B. ’63, many alumni and friends made a special gift to The Annual Fund last fall. The appeal has been extended and we will accept gifts in honor of Fr. Edwin’s 50th anniversary until the end of our fiscal year on June 30. You can direct your gift to the Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B. ’63 Scholarship Fund or the area of the School that means the most to you.


To give, visit give.sbp.org/50years.


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