NEWARK, NJ — Father Edwin Leahy, headmaster of Newark’s St. Benedict’s Prep recalled on Friday a few strong-willed students who, armed with broom handles, forced a fencing team onto the school’s activity options. 

It wasn’t long before those students were winning the Cetrulo Tournament, and now, along with Columbia University and Newark Academy, St. Benedict’s boasts one of the most sophisticated fencing rooms in the country. So, when a group of determined female students from Elizabeth’s closing Benedectine Academy asked Leahy in March for an all-girls division at St. Benedict’s, he knew the writing was on the wall. 

“It’s just a kid’s saying, ‘We’re not taking no for an answer. We want to do this, and we’re going to figure out how to do it,” Leahy said. “People ask, “What are you doing? Trying to stay one step ahead?” No, I’m trying to stay a step behind them.”

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St. Benedict’s announced during a Thursday night virtual town hall that it will be welcoming 61 girls, who self-recruited, come this fall. The school’s 21-member board of trustees overwhelmingly approved the historic decision, according to Leahy. 

The school has been operating remotely since March 13. Initially, the girls led a charge to merge the two schools, but when that was later revealed to be impossible, they shifted focus to attending St. Benedict’s. 

Given all the uncertainty around whether school will even reopen in the fall, Leahy is not yet sure what addition of the girls will look like. The summer phase will begin remotely on July 6, so the school will need to have its girls' leadership structure in place by then.

Both the male and female students expressed a desire to keep the campus single-sex and will be separated during the school day. Assertions about damage to the school’s culture didn’t seem to affect the students or Leahy, who at one point told a commenter to “prove it.” 

“At Benedict’s, we’re all about community, and with Benedictine being our sister school, this is what we do. We help each other in times of need,” said Sunil, a male St. Benedict’s student at Thursday’s town hall, whose full name was not provided. 

Leahy said that part of St. Benedict’s mission and teachings as a monastery is for its students to act with hospitality and goodwill, lending to the excitement the students have for their new classmates. 

Catholic schools across the state are facing closures this year due to financial woes pre-dating the coronavirus pandemic. The Archdiocese of Newark recently announced the permanent closure of 10 schools, including Cristo Rey Newark High School, from which St. Benedict’s is also expecting both male and some female students. 

Leahy said St. Benedict’s will know its financial position better in the next week as tuition payment comes in, but thus far, the school has not received more financial aid requests than average. He added that he’s anticipating the continued economic fallout will impact the school’s bottom line going forward. 

“I work for a guy who didn’t turn anybody away, so I have a hard time doing that,” he said. “I’ve learned this from friends of mine who are Navy SEALs: Don’t pull future problems into the present situation.”