Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ

Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ

Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ

Miracle on High Street: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ


Just outside of downtown Newark, New Jersey, sits an abbey and a school. For more than 150 years Benedictine monks have lived, worked, and prayed on High Street, a once-grand thoroughfare of Victorian mansions, churches, synagogues, and hospitals. For much of the twentieth century, High Street belonged to the strivers of the city’s bygone industrial era. Germans—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—followed by Irish Catholics, Greeks, and later African Americans, all settled and built institutions along the two-mile stretch of “Striver’s Row.” Most left in the years after World War ii when the city suffered from a trinity of woes: massive deindustrialization, high-speed suburbanization, and racial violence. Newark’s Striver’s Row became its Skid Row. As the city and its struggling neighborhoods deteriorated around the monks, they too wrestled with whether to remain in Newark.

Over the last 1,500 years, Benedictines have lived in self-governing communities according to The Rule of St. Benedict, whose spirit is best summed up by the motto ora et labora (“pray and work”). Many monasteries have founded schools, thus establishing the Order’s reputation as a “teaching order.” the most distinctive feature of Benedictine monasticism, though, has been a vow of stability of place, an ancient pledge that roots a monastery in a particular location, and binds an individual monk to it for the rest of his life. Boniface Wimmer, the father of the Benedictine Order in the United States, also recognized the importance of a second attribute—adaptability—that allowed monks to respond to conditions particular to their locale. As men of both stability and adaptability, the Benedictines were well suited for the trials and tribulations of running a school in an old American city.


The miracle on High Street actually began on William Street.

On September 5, 1854, three thousand men, most of them wearing Prince Albert coats, round felt hats, and red sashes slung over their shoulders, paraded through the streets of Newark. Thirteen different lodges of the American Protestant Association, all marching behind their own banners and bands, wanted to make a show of force on behalf of the Know-Nothing Party before the November elections. Since 1850 the nativist political party had garnered swift support for its anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner platform. Nationwide the party now had over one million members and had put thousands in office, ranging from the grassroots level to the halls of Congress. That day, almost all the men carried swords and pistols. Marching four abreast, the “long and imposing” procession sang anti-Catholic ditties and shouted the party’s motto, “Americans must rule America.” They eventually stopped for lunch at Military Hall on Market Street, where they ate and drank for the next two hours.

Just a few blocks away on William Street, Father Nicholas Balleis, a Benedictine missionary from Austria, dined with three other priests at his living quarters adjacent to St. Mary’s, a small wooden church built in 1842 to minister to the growing number of German Catholic immigrants in the neighborhood. Father Nicholas had read about the parade in the morning’s paper—the Newark Daily Advertiser noted, “Know-Nothingism is said to be spreading, not only in this city but in all the surrounding towns and villages”—but he did not make much of it until he heard music playing outside. Scheduled to march through a nearby native Protestant neighborhood, the parade’s course was . . .

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