It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City
South Orange author Tom McCabe traces the history of Newark and St. Benedict's
South Orange author Thomas McCabe views local history through the lens of St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark. McCabe's book, Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of An American Catholic Prep School, will be released today by Fordham University Press.
A decade-long labor of love, it's fitting that McCabe's book is released on All Saints Day. He explains that the Benedictine tradition calls for service in a particular setting, rather than itinerant good works. Thus, St. Benedict's has been teaching young men in Newark since 1868. The school's fortunes mirror that of the city. Teachers saw students move out of the city, first to the Oranges and Maplewood, then further west. Now the school stands at the center of a Newark renaissance.
McCabe, a graduate of Delbarton in Morristown, notes that his alma mater grew from St. Benedict's. He began teaching, then serving as an administrator at the Newark school, after he graduated from Princeton. He saw the school develop through the 1990s, adapting to the changes of Newark and demands of the times.
"Somebody needs to write this," 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, a statistic unimaginable in 1967, when monks watched riots from the school rooftop. Five years later, in 1972, the school closed.
McCabe explains that the Benedictine 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 addition to more than 50 faculty members.
A life-long South Orange resident, McCabe holds a doctorate in history from Rutgers University. He teaches at Montclair State and Rutgers – Newark, where he crafted a popular course centered on this summer's World Cup, drawing parallels between past events and present ethnic loyalties.
McCabe sees the pull of tradition in Catholic education at St. Benedict's and even locally, in South Orange. 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." He hypothesizes that the same qualities attract parents to South Orange's Catholic schools. Our Lady of Sorrows and Marylawn of the Oranges have both grown significantly this year, and Seton Hall University boasts the largest freshman class in decades.
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," which is 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." Likewise, without St. Benedict's, says McCabe, the community would be lesser for it, too.
Tom McCabe will read from Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of An American Catholic Prep School at Words on Tues., Nov. 16, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.