The school in the city and the priest on the stairway

Rev. Edwin Leahy, OSB
Rev. Edwin Leahy, OSB

On the stage, in places of honor, sat eight old men. In the audience they faced sat hundreds of young men, teenagers mostly. Between them, on the stairs leading from the children to the elders, stood the priest. The moderator. The guide from each group to the other. The bridge. The name of the priest was Fr. Edwin Leahy. Father Ed. The place was St. Benedict’s Prep, Newark.

“God works in history,” said the priest to his students. Something the headmaster of St. Benedict’s often says. I know he believes it. On that morning, at the convocation celebrating the 40th anniversary of the reopening of St. Benedict’s in 1973, I was willing to concede his point for the sake of argument and the logic of his homily.

But I also could not help but ponder the irony of the moment.

Father Ed was praising the old men on the stage, thanking the politicians for all they had done for the school when it began its struggle to survive in the early 1970s. They included Sharpe James, the former Newark mayor; Steve Adubato, “Big Steve,” a political boss in Essex County, and Joe DiVincenzo, “Joe D,” the Essex County Executive and, yes, another political boss who all but admitted as much by cracking wise about political bosses when he was introduced and got up to speak.

Others were on the stage as well. Clement Price, the Rutgers historian, who would talk movingly about history and memory, and Bob Curvin, a man whose career as activist and academic demonstrated how anger evolves into effective advocacy. Father Ed told the students, most of whom were African-American and Latino, of how, at the beginning of what the priest called the “uprising” in 1967, Curvin stood atop a car to speak to a crowd and became an instant leader of what would become the future.

But DiVincenzo, Adubato, and James? How would the priest on the stairway discuss these men to students? All three are polarizing figures. One, James, went to federal prison—wrongly, I think, but still.

No institution touched me the way St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark touched me, and still does. I came to St. Benedict’s shortly after my parents separated in 1959. A chaotic time in my life. Chaotic and, at times, violent. No one—except, perhaps, my closest friend at the time, a grammar school and then a Benedict’s classmate—knew what was happening in my life. I would never talk, even to priests, about such private, such personal, circumstances. But it was there at St. Benedict’s   I first wrote for publication—okay, it was just Kayrix, the literary magazine, and the Telolog, the yearbook. It was the first place strangers, non-family members,  complimented my writing. English teachers, especially Fr. Cornelius Sweeney, a great grouch of a man with a great Irish thirst and a biting sense of ironic humor, saw talent where I had only felt an urge to write. These were people who didn’t have to say I was good. I can’t thank them enough.

St. Benedict’s closed in 1972 and reopened a year later, July 2, 1973, under Fr. Ed’s leadership as headmaster. He was 27, white, a young man with no experience leading a private school, any school. His monastery was torn asunder by arguments over the school’s presence in a city devastated by civil disorders. Half the monks left to join St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown.

I wrote about the school’s struggle to reopen for The Star-Ledger. I traveled with him as he met with alumni, pleading for financial help to reopen the school. He faced sharp, unfair criticism from many alumni who argued St. Benedict’s, like Newark Academy and The Pingry School and other college prep schools, could have been saved if it had only fled to the suburbs—away from the kinds of people who, they said, caused the 1967 riot. But Father Ed was adamant: St. Benedict’s had been founded in 1868 to educate the children of immigrants who lived in the city. It would keep the mission of serving students who were not on top.

At the 40th anniversary convocation, Father Ed spoke of the school’s resurrection. How he and others planned an alternative school—in the spirit of the times. One name suggested was “The Phoenix.” But, the headmaster told the students, Carl Lamb, the father of one of the new students, wondered why “St. Benedict’s Prep was good enough for your people,  but not mine.” The next day, the young monk exercised the authority he was surprised to know he had by renaming the new school “St. Benedict’s Prep.” It would be the same school and would stay in Newark. He and the remaining monks would rededicate the school to its original mission.

The rest is a long story I will tell here over the course of the next few months. St. Benedict’s Prep is a highly successful college preparatory school with a special mission of educating young men from Newark, East Orange, Irvington and other cities. Young men who need it. The way I needed it more than a half-century ago.

At the 40th anniversary convocation, Father Ed talked about the political figures who helped the school, mentioning Ken Gibson, too ill to attend, and singling out Sharpe James for helping the school acquire the land it would need to expand and get through the bureaucratic hurdles to that expansion.

“The men you see up here helped us,” he told the students.

I couldn’t help but shake my head. James went to jail for allegedly helping a “girlfriend” obtain property she could rehabilitate and sell. And here was Father Ed publicly thanking the former mayor for helping the school.  I think James was unfairly indicted and wrongly convicted and I have said so. He got in the way of a federal prosecutor with his eyes on a much bigger prize—and another person on the stage, Joe D, is now campaigning for that Republican’s reelection.

My friends who are advocates of stronger public schools will wonder about these words and my affection for St. Benedict’s Prep. But the school is not a charter school, like Adubato’s Robert Treat Academy. It isn’t a voucher school, a policy Joe D supports. It doesn’t take public money from public schools and I hope it never will. It doesn’t have the selective admissions standards of conventional prep schools.

It exists because of the determination of people to support it privately and voluntarily. Just as I oppose the use of public money for private schools, I also would oppose any effort to close private schools—and I do advocate for greater private contributions to them.

Joe D told the students St. Benedict’s was “the best” school in the city, maybe the state. Better than the public schools. Irony there, too. As a public figure with statewide aspirations, he should be ensuring the public schools in his county are the best in the state.

I congratulate St. Benedict’s Prep, my school, on the 40th anniversary of its reopening. I congratulate Father Ed for his leadership—and on the 50th anniversary of his graduation from the school. Our 50th, because we were classmates. Unlike too many people who get too much ink from the conventional media, Father Ed is an essential man. He is the man on the stairway.

If, as Father Ed says, God works through history, the kid I met when I was 13—Dennis Leahy or “DeLay”—is one of His agents. I know he sees both the wonder and the irony in that idea.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Meet the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Urban Education Award Finalists « Schools That Can

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