SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT: Benedictine in Savannah began by educating emancipated persons

By Noell Barnidge
In May 1874, Benedictine monks Fr. Oswald Moosmuller, O.S.B., and Fr. Maurice Kaeder, O.S.B., came to Savannah from Europe by way of Saint Vincent Monastery in Latrobe, Pa., at the request of Savannah Bishop William Gross, who sought to educate and convert the recently emancipated persons in accordance with the directives of the Council of Baltimore and the Catholic Bishops.

True to the Bishop’s commitment, the founding of St. Benedict’s parish occurred soon after the monks’ arrival and a school followed in 1875. The school prospered and another was built at Isle of Hope to make it more accessible to the Black community in the rural areas south of town. The Benedictines bought a plot of land on Isle of Hope and Dr. DuPont donated an additional plot. The Benedictines founded the first monastery in the South on these two plots. The new school and small monastery opened in the summer of 1876. Although several recruits joined, within a year the monastery members died of yellow fever.

After this loss, Abbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., founder of the Benedictines in the United States, honored Bishop Gross’ request to help carry out the original apostolate. In March 1877, the Abbot sent Fr. Oswald, as superior, and Fr. Maurice, and the Savannah Diocese gave the Benedictines 713 acres on Skidaway Island. At this site (now the 14th hole of The Landings golf course) the Benedictines built a monastery and school.

The Benedictines hoped to open the Skidaway Island school in September 1877, but construction delays prevented the school from opening until September 1878. A celebration was held on the island and V.E. Kelly, in his book “A Short History of Skidaway Island,” wrote that “some 600 guests chartered the boat City of Bridgerton to transport them to Skidaway on June 16. The Baltimore church paper Volks Zeitung reported that the ceremonies took place in an oak grove 400 feet square where a Solemn Mass was offered at which Father Oswald preached. Following the Mass there was a procession to the monastery.”

The Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School operated from 1878-89 on Skidaway Island. Hampton Place, a plantation on Skidaway Island, originally was purchased by Savannah’s Catholic diocese to start an orphanage but when the main house was destroyed by fire, the diocese turned over the property to the Benedictines to build a school. Because the students did not pay tuition, they spent part of their day working the field with the monks and the proceeds from the harvest were used to support the school.

The original school had challenges from within the Savannah community. Kelly, in his book, wrote, “White protestants from the mainland were also anxious to thwart Catholic influence on the Black population. When they found out about the plans for a Benedictine school, they got the Chatham County government to approve a public school for the 80 Black school-age children on Skidaway. This took place in the fall of 1878, just when Father Oswald was getting the school started.”

There were seven faculty members when the school opened, and two more soon arrived from Pennsylvania. A total of 12 students were enrolled when school began. By the end of November, only seven students remained. One student left on his own and four were dismissed. The schedule was rigorous. Fr. Oswald had the boys awaken at 5 a.m., attend Mass, work, receive instruction, and recite the rosary twice daily.

In a letter to Saint Vincent Abbey asking for more help, Fr. Oswald wrote, “You ought to animate some good novices for this mission, but you must not forget to tell them that here on Skidaway we have no beer, no wine, no fresh beef nor any other luxuries of that kind; nevertheless, we enjoy good health and like the place very well.”

Fr. Oswald was transferred to Savannah in August 1879, where he “organized a school for Black boys which eventually became the Savannah Benedictine School,” Kelly wrote in his book. “His place as head of the Skidaway monastery school was taken by Father Melchior Reichert. By 1881, there were eight faculty and still only 12 African American boys residing at the school. By 1883, the enrollment was up to 20 students.”

Though enrollment was up, and the venture proved to be working, tragedy struck in 1889 when a tidal wave hit Skidaway and ruined the island’s fresh water supply. Also, several of the monastery’s buildings were destroyed by fire. As a result, the Benedictines closed the Skidaway Island monastery and school.

Upon returning to Savannah, the monks served Sacred Heart Catholic Church under the authority of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. They established a monastery at 31st and Habersham Streets, adjacent to the Sacred Hearth Parish, which they then served.

Recognizing the need for a Catholic boys' school, they established Benedictine College in 1902, later named Benedictine Military School, next to the church. BC was organized on a military basis in the Southern military tradition of VMI and The Citadel. The school on Bull Street opened with 21 Cadets and eventually gave rise to the school we all know and love today.

In 1963, both the priory and the school moved to their current location, 6502 Seawright Drive, on the southside of Savannah. Shortly after moving to the new location, the monastic community chose to return to the authority of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa.