- After Class
Father to the Whole Community
The Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey elected Rt. Rev. Augustine J. Curley, O.S.B., Ph.D. ’74, the third Abbot of the monastic community on May 12. Abbot Gus or “Goose,” as he’s affectionately known to generations of Gray Bees, sat for a conversation about his new role as spiritual leader.
How are you settling into the role of Abbot?
I’m still moving into the position but am getting there. I think the honeymoon lasted two day [laughs]. Having taken care of the everyday needs of the monastery for the last 15 years as Prior is a definite advantage. I’m aware of the issues and not coming into the position cold.
People have a general sense that the Abbot serves as the spiritual leader of Newark Abbey. Can you give us a more precise idea of what the Abbot does?
The word Abbot means father, so it’s really being the father of the entire community. One of the roles is to make sure the monastic community is going in the right direction. I’m here to listen. Obviously when you live in community, not everyone has the same viewpoint on things. You need to be open to different viewpoints. Ultimately, when I make a decision, I have to ensure it doesn’t alienate people and that people are comfortable, even if it’s not the decision they wanted.
The Abbot is also the spiritual guide for St. Mary’s Church and St. Benedict’s Prep. It’s really a relationship that extends to the whole community and on to the City of Newark. I want to be available to the city on a governmental level and just also to the people of the city. I’m open to whatever comes up.
You are the third Abbot of Newark Abbey. Ambrose Clark, O.S.B., the first Abbot, had a relatively short tenure marked by change and trauma in the late 1960s. The tenure of Melvin Valvano, O.S.B. ’56, the second Abbot, lasted nearly 50 years and will likely be remembered as a time of sustained renewal. Do you have a sense of what your tenure will be like?
I hope it’s peaceful. I pray it’s peaceful. I’ve become Abbot just as we’re coming out of COVID-19, so it’s an unsettling time. I see part of my role as being a steady influence and a spiritual guide to keep all our communities — the monastery, St. Mary’s Church and St. Benedict’s Prep — on track and to move them into the future.
Speaking of St. Benedict’s…as you know, enrollment has grown to over 1,000 students at The Hive. How do your priorities as Abbot align with the School?
When I was in school at St. Benedict’s, probably half of the faculty were monks. And before that, most of the faculty were monks. As the School grows, we still want to keep the monastic influence. We need to find a way to do that when we’re not teaching half of the classes. I’m looking for ways that I can be involved with the School and make sure the monastic influence continues.
Part of that means looking at vocations. Before COVID, we would have students join us for Mass, come to dinner. The guys that used to come graduated, so there hasn’t been a real way of connecting young men to the life of the monastery. Post COVID, we’re going to look at how we can start doing that again, safely.
It’s not that we happen to be in Newark. God planted us in Newark. We need to connect and be a part of the city.”
You’ve been the caretaker of the history of Newark Abbey and St. Benedict’s Prep. How does history inform your approach as a spiritual leader?
If you look at our history, God put us here. You had Nicholas Balleis start a parish in 1838 and eventually, the Bishop of Newark asked Boniface Wimmer to start a monastery here. It’s not that we happen to be in Newark. God planted us in Newark. We really need to connect and be a part of the city.
As different ethnic groups came through the city, history repeated itself. Boniface Wimmer, who founded St. Benedict’s, brought the children of Irish and German immigrants together. ‘Forget the adults,’ he said. ‘They are set in their ways.’ We’re doing the same thing now, except it’s so much broader.
At the time of our Centennial, Abbot Martin Burne said, ‘We cannot be an island of whiteness in the Central Ward. We have to engage.’ He was very influential in bringing African-Americans to the School. My freshman year at St. Benedict’s was probably the first year the School had a significant number of African-American and Latino students.
Today, we have a multi-ethnic student body from so many different religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, all coming to this Catholic school, living and learning together. Much of it is because the monks are here. I want to continue being a point of unity, a point of connection among all these different groups.
In your first public appearance as Abbot at the Annual Scholarship Gala, you took a few moments to talk about vocations. Anything you want to say on vocations for this magazine?
We pray for vocations, but we must also encourage them. I think a big part of it is getting people to realize that this is a possible life. It’s a satisfying life. It’s a fulfilling life. People tend to concentrate on what you must give up, rather than what you have to gain. I’d encourage someone who is discerning a vocation, to come and be with us for a while. Maybe you’ll see it’s not the way you perceive it.
Rt. Rev. Augustine Curley, O.S.B., Ph.D. ’74, was a sophomore when St. Benedict’s Prep closed in 1972. He attended Saint Peter’s Prep for one year and went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in politics and philosophy from Assumption College, and a doctorate in philosophy from Boston College. Abbot Gus joined the community at Newark Abbey and was ordained to the priesthood in 1988. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Newark History Society and was the historian for the city’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 2022.
- After Class