The bond between Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Ga., and Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., has strengthened during the past six years.
During that time, monks have annually visited Savannah to learn more about BC and explore the possibility of teaching at the school and living at the Benedictine Priory on campus. Meanwhile, for three summers (2017-19) until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause, BC Cadets, administrators, and teachers traveled to Latrobe, Pa., to learn more about Saint Vincent Archabbey and Saint Vincent College.
BC recently hosted six Saint Vincent Archabbey junior monks (Br. Sean, Br. Xavier, Br. Gilbert, Br. Francisco, Br. Angelo, and Br. Gregory), and one postulant (Tim, who is a candidate for admission into the religious order). The visitors arrived in two cars Jan. 11. Some returned to Latrobe, Pa., on Jan. 16, while others remained until Jan. 23.
“The abbey is so grateful to BC for giving a number of its monks a chance to express their vocation in a high school setting that proved to be very beneficial for their own well-being, their development, their sense of satisfaction, for their vocation,” said BC Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., who has served in the position since Aug. 21, 2007. “For example, Fr. Albert Bickerstaff, for whom our ballfield is named, was here for dozens of years. He became an institution here. He was at home in so many homes. He was an assistant coach for the football team for decades. He was the good friend of so many students here. He had their weddings, said their funerals.
“BC provides an arena for these monks from Saint Vincent, largely from western Pennsylvania, to come down and express their vocation through this school,” Ziemkiewicz continued. “I think of Br. Tim (Brown, O.S.B.) and all the years that he spent, be it in the classroom, in the library, coaching (directing) plays. So many very satisfying experiences came from that. Fr. Ron (Gatman, O.S.B.) continues to serve after, I think it’s closing in on four decades now, of service at BC. He’s become part of the local Savannah fabric. He is invited into so many homes. He is invited to have the baptisms, the funerals, and has long-established relationships. With that thought in mind, BC has really provided an outlet that I’m not so sure would have existed otherwise. I see the influence of new monks coming down here, as has been the case the last several years, as carrying on that tradition. Some of these monks may have a longstanding tradition with BC, and over the course of the years will be getting to know so many of the wonderful people that are in Savannah, that are within the BC community.”
THE BC COMMUNITY
The community of Benedictine Military School is based on the tradition of Benedictine values. Saint Benedict outlined several key elements within the community. These values (community, prayer, hospitality, discipline, stewardship, humility, conversion, obedience, and love of Christ and neighbor) are as relevant and timeless today as they were in the founding of Benedictine Military School in 1902.
The Saint Vincent monastic community comprises more than 150 monks who serve at Benedictine Priory in Savannah, Ga.; Wimmer Priory in Taipei, Taiwan; and Sao Bento Priory in Vinhedo, Brazil. Saint Vincent Benedictines also operate Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Ga.; the Roman Catholic campus ministry program at Penn State University; and serve in parishes in Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland in addition to parishes in the Pennsylvania dioceses of Greensburg, Altoona-Johnstown, Pittsburgh, and Erie.
Br. Sean Cooksey, O.S.B., of Pittsburgh, Pa., recently visited BC for a second time. His first visit was in March 2020. He has spent two and a half years with Saint Vincent’s Archabbey and is exploring the possibility of teaching at BC.
“The whole thing here is that there is this connection,” he said. “The Benedictines helped to found this place (Benedictine Military School) and we are continuing to maintain that tradition. What I liked about the Benedictine spirituality is there is this aspect that the Benedictines are with it all the time. I went to a Jesuit university and they’re sort of phasing out the Jesuit monks. There aren’t as many there. There aren’t as many resources. With them withdrawing themselves from the administration, you see a lot of different things happening whereas here, and with Saint Vincent College as well, Benedictines stick around. They’re taking responsibility for the place. You see a lot of good things come from that. The Catholic identity is still there. Seeing religious people, like priests and what have you, as approachable people is a wonderful thing. That was my draw to the Benedictine community. There were a lot of young guys. And that’s a good thing. We’re the ‘in’ for a lot of young people. Young people see us as an ‘in’ to the faith, and into Benedictine life, monastic life.”
Like Br. Sean Cooksey, in recent years Fr. David Klecker, Br. Matthew Hershey, and Fr. Maximilian Maxwell made trips from Latrobe, Pa., to Savannah, Ga. All three now teach at BC and live in the Benedictine Priory on campus with BC Headmaster Ziemkiewicz and Campus Ministry Director Gatman.
“I remember the first trip I made to Savannah,” said Klecker, who visited in 2015. “This was with Br. Matthew, Br. Lawrence (now Fr. Lawrence Machia), and another Cistercian brother Minh (Pham). We certainly fell in love with the warmer weather, yet we also were amazed at the wonderful historic feel of the city. During a meet-and-greet with the students we noticed the camaraderie between the students and how friendly the staff and faculty were as well. Everyone at BC certainly makes Savannah feel like a home away from home. BC has a very warm and inviting atmosphere that even our guests notice and talk about.”
Klecker is the Benedictine Prior, a position previously held by Ziemkiewicz. As the Benedictine Prior, Klecker is responsible for the Priory and the monks therein. One of his duties is to make sure the brothers have what they need to be successful at the Priory and in their ministries.
“I am in charge of finances, and those who work at the Priory who are in charge of our maintenance, organizational work within the Priory, ensuring things are running smoothly,” Klecker said. “Beyond that, I teach Computer Science and Math at BC, and assist with the Raider team and the golf team.”
Working at BC is Klecker’s first major assignment since becoming a monk of Saint Vincent in 2015.
“It has been a very rewarding assignment,” he said. “I have grown and recognized my weakness and strengths thanks to BC and my duties here as Prior. I have found myself living the dream at BC: teaching Computer Science and in many ways introducing the students to the world of Computer Science.
Hershey and Maxwell are theology teachers at BC. Maxwell said he is blessed with the opportunity to be a monk of the Benedictine Priory and to teach at BC. He said there are several monastic candidates, who are Cadets, prayerfully discerning their vocation in life.
“Benedictine Military School is one of the fantastic opportunities that a monk has to apply the ancient charge of Saint Benedict to establish a school for the Lord’s service,” Maxwell said. “For the past several years, junior monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey spend time here at Benedictine to get to know the students, faculty, and staff of BC. These monks who spend time with us are more than visitors, they are family. The junior monk gets to know the students by sitting in classrooms, having lunch with them, as well as casual interaction like shooting hoops on the quad. Junior monks interact with the faculty by sharing stories of their common discipline that go beyond the theology classroom and into the sciences of mathematics, biology, chemistry, etc.
“The second part of this neighborhood-to-neighborhood experience is having the opportunity of students and faculty travel to Saint Vincent Archabbey, commonly referred to as the ‘mother house.’ This is a great way for anyone who is a part of Benedictine to see the rich foundation of Benedictine monasticism established at Saint Vincent. This concept of having monks travel to Benedictine, and students and faculty traveling to Saint Vincent, is an important link and establishing future vocations to the Benedict and way of life established here in Savannah. The future monastic vocation to Benedictine Priory must come from the hallways and classrooms of Benedictine Military School. The Savannah vocation is very strong and necessary.”
O’Mara, who recently spent two weeks visiting BC, said he, too, is considering teaching on Seawright Drive.
“It’s been a great experience,” said O’Mara, who visited for a second consecutive year. “I want to get a little bit more time in the classroom and maybe talk with some counselors and some other people that maybe would be able to give me a little bit better perspective.”
O’Mara is in his third year as a monk at Saint Vincent Archabbey. He was a student, staff member, and admissions counselor at Saint Vincent College before becoming a monk.
“I would think more students would want that continuity between the Catholic education they received as a high school student, even before then, so why not continue that at a Catholic college?” he said. “The faith is very vibrant. It’s alive. And being able to experience that on a Catholic campus would make your faith stronger and actually make it even stronger than it was before. Having BC as a feeder school is one of our top priorities because of the fact that you get a similar experience. You get dedicated faulty, a Catholic foundational education. Plus, you get that Catholic continuity. If you liked your experience at BC, you’re going to love Saint Vincent (College). It’s just a bigger BC.”
RECONNECTING WITH ‘THE MOTHERSHIP’
Helping the BC community to better understand that it is part of the larger Benedictine community was a priority to Mr. Dennis Daly, who served as BC Principal for two years (2015-17) before his retirement. One of Daly’s greatest accomplishments was strengthening the bond between BC and Saint Vincent Archabbey. Part of his plan was to have the BC community “return to the Mothership” in Latrobe, Pa.
In August of 2015, a large group of Benedictine Military School’s administrators, faculty, and staff visited Saint Vincent Archabbey during the weekend of the BC Board Retreat. The group was hosted by Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B., and several other Benedictine monks. The Board met to review plans and prepare for the 2015-16 school year.
“Dennis Daly was instrumental in rebuilding the bridge between Savannah and Latrobe,” said Deacon Kevin Knight, BC Theology Department Chair. “It all began when the faculty and staff went to Latrobe for meetings (in 2015). On that trip, I met Fr. Max and when began a discussion about bringing Cadets to Latrobe over the summer so they could see that they were part of something much larger than they ever imagined. Our first trip to Latrobe (with Cadets) took place in July 2017 and we have returned every year since, except for last year because of COVID. We will do so again as soon as COVID restrictions are not as strict.”
The trip to Latrobe especially impacted Eddie Seginack, BC Class of 2018, who now attends Saint Vincent College.
Nowicki served as archabbot from Jan. 8, 1991, until May 8, 2020, when he resigned upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. Archabbot Martin de Porres Bartel was elected to fill the void left by Archabbot Nowicki. With his election, Archabbot Martin became chancellor of Saint Vincent College and Saint Vincent Seminary. The archabbot is the spiritual head and father of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the first Benedictine monastery in the United States.
“We have been blessed to have the sponsorship, the auspices, of the archabbey, the support of Archabbot Rembert, Archabbot Egbert Donovan, Archabbot Douglas (Nowicki),” Ziemkiewicz said. “They have all been strong supporters of BC and have made their presence very much known over the course of the years, and for that matter, have expressed their gratitude for what this community has had to offer to them.
“The abbey has contributed much, both in terms of manpower and in terms of financial support,” Ziemkiewicz continued. “And, for that matter, their prayer life. They continue to outreach to us. Any time we go back to the community, we’re by no means seen as outsiders. We’re welcomed back to the mothership. It’s always a pleasant experience. And they want to know what’s going on down here, and they welcome the chance to visit.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE LATROBE/SAVANNAH PARTNERSHIP
March 7, 2016: Archabbot Douglas attended the dedication of St. Benedict Hall located in the entrance of BC’s Academic Building. The abbey made a $500,000 gift to the Forward, Always Forward Capital Campaign, and St. Benedict Hall is named in honor of the monks from Belmont Abbey and Saint Vincent Archabbey who have dedicated their lives in service of Benedictine Military School. Their faithful leadership and stability have been the foundation of Benedictine Military School since 1902.
March 2017: 13 Benedictine monks visited BC. Fr. Maxwell was the celebrant/homilist at a school Mass in the cafeteria. Br. Hershey threw out the first pitch at a BC baseball game. And the monks attended the musical “Oklahoma!” featuring BC Cadets and St. Vincent’s Academy Saints.
July 2017: 10 BC Cadets, as well as BC teachers Mr. Joe Tvrdy and Mr. Knight, and Mr. Daly, visited Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., for a week. Fr. Maxwell took them to Pittsburgh, where they toured the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field and attended a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game at PNC Park.
October 2017: Members of the Benedictine Military School family joined BC on a Saturday evening for Mass and a reception in celebration of the Benedictine monks. That year, BC celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Benedictine monks from Latrobe, Pa., and their service to the Savannah community.
April 2018: Benedictine Military School hosted a special Mass and reception for the Saint Benedict Education Foundation. Special guests included Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B., Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Archabbot Nowicki, and Harry Haslam ’69, Board Chair for the St. Benedict Education Foundation, which raises money for scholarships for students who attend the international Benedictine University, Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
July 2018: 10 BC Cadets, as well as members of BC’s theology and mathematics departments, visited Saint Vincent Archabbey.
July 2019: 11 BC Cadets, as well as members of BC’s faculty, visited Saint Vincent Archabbey. They toured Saint Vincent College and the Basilica, attended an ice cream social, attended Mass daily, and took time for prayer throughout each day. They also learned about the history of Monasticism from Saint Benedict to BC, attended a planetarium and astronomy presentation, and a participated in a stained glass workshop conducted by monks.
November 2020: Archabbot Martin de Porres Bartel, O.S.B., visited campus from Saint Vincent Archabbey. He took a guided tour throughout BC’s campus with BC Headmaster Ziemkiewicz, BC Principal Mr. Jacob Horne, BC Board of Directors Chairman Mr. Chris Phillip ’79, and BC Board Member Mr. Jack Robertson ’82. “The BC community made a very, very positive first impression on Archabbot Martin” Ziemkiewicz said. “I think his take on the school is that the BC community supports this school, and (Saint Vincent Archabbey) plans to stand behind this school for many years to come.”
BENEDICTINE ORDER’S BEGINNING
Benedictines are known for lives of prayer, work, and study, as prescribed by the founding monk, Saint Benedict (480 AD-547 AD) of Italy. The work of Benedictines is often practical and tied to the community. Historically, some Benedictine monasteries in Europe were centers for learning and teaching, which helps explain why Benedictines became involved in starting and running universities in the United States. Benedictines, from their founding days, also have been known for their hospitality, which at the time literally meant sheltering people who had nowhere else to go whether because of economic need or dangerous political upheaval.
The “Rule of Monasteries” was written by Benedict of Nursia after 529 AD and is commonly referred to as the Rule of St. Benedict. It reflects Benedict’s own long experience as a monk and abbot, and his study of the older monastic tradition which he uses extensively, especially an older text called the Rule of the Master by an anonymous author. The Rule of St. Benedict consists of a Prologue and 73 chapters, ranging from a few lines to several pages. They provide teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as directives for daily living. The Rule prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, and journeys away from the monastery.
Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., was a German monk who in 1846 founded the first Benedictine monastery in the U.S., Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., which is 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
BENEDICTINE MILITARY SCHOOL’S BEGINNING AND PRESENT DAY
Benedictine Military School’s history dates to 1874 when two Benedictine monks came to Savannah from Europe by way of Saint Vincent Monastery in Latrobe, Pa., to educate and convert the recently emancipated people of color. The founding of St. Benedict’s parish occurred soon after the monks’ arrival and a school followed in 1875 on Isle of Hope. After several unfortunate setbacks, the Benedictines had to abandon their mission by about 1900.
Upon returning to Savannah, the monks served Sacred Heart Church under the aegis of Belmont Abbey. In 1902, adjacent to the church, Benedictine College opened its doors at 31st and Habersham Streets and was an immediate success. In addition to primarily serving the male Catholic students, it attracted the Jewish population and poor Protestants who shared interest in the Judeo-Christian tradition of academic excellence, good moral living, respect for authority, and love of country.
In 1906, the groundbreaking ceremony was performed on the ground that would become the school’s campus on Bull Street. In 1920, the school changed its name to Benedictine School because of the confusion that Benedictine was a college. However, the nickname “BC” stuck.
In 1963, Benedictine Military School moved to its current location on Seawright Drive. Today, Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., guides the Benedictines.
“Back in about ’63, the monks of the Priory of BC chose to go independent of Belmont Abbey (Monastery in Belmont, N.C.), so with that they severed formal ties,” Ziemkiewicz said. “I’m sure the blood tie, the sentimental tie, remains strong. In fact, one of the monks from those days, Fr. Bede (Lightner, O.S.B.), eventually returned to Belmont Abbey. That said, during that period from ’63 to ’67, the BC Priory functioned as an independent abbey of the Benedictine community. In the 1967 timeframe, our archabbot at the time, Rembert Weakland, accepted the challenge of bringing the BC Priory and the school itself back into the original hands of Saint Vincent Archabbey. So, with that thought in mind, a number of monks from Saint Vincent came down to Savannah, and Saint Vincent has served as the overseeing agency for BC ever since.
“I very much like to think (of BC) in terms of a school with a soul,” Ziemkiewicz continued. “Our association with the abbey is fostering that mentality. And I would say especially to the idea that BC is not some foreign satellite to the archabbey, whereas the archabbey would view us as an integral part of it. It is a place where monks from the abbey can be vibrant. Goodness knows, during the winter months at Saint Vincent, BC looks all the more attractive. It has really served as a strong reminder of our link with the greater Benedictine community, the church in general, that is part of our mission that began under Archabbot Boniface (Wimmer). We’re here to serve the people. It’s given us the opportunity to serve the people not only of Irish descent, Catholic descent, but the greater population. And, for that matter, too, to give other faith denominations an appreciation for what we have to offer.”