SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT: Benedictine Military School cherishes opportunity to march in annual Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade

By Noell Barnidge
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Benedictine Military School, two Savannah traditions that are interwoven by the fabrics of family and tradition.

Begun as a boys’ preparatory school in 1902, Benedictine College – as it originally was called – was organized on a military basis in the Southern military tradition of VMI and The Citadel. The school opened with 21 Cadets and was an immediate success. The BC Cadets were highly visible in the community. They often acted as a color guard or escort for civic occasions, as well as marching annually in the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an enduring tradition that began in 1903 with 25 Cadets marching.

Before long, the Savannah community as a whole embraced the school, regarding it as its own version of The Citadel. In 1936, Benedictine became the first “day” military school in the nation to become an honor unit with distinction, prompting the monks to change the name of the school to Benedictine Military School. By the 1950s, it became a tradition among Savannah’s Catholic families for sons to attend the alma mater of their fathers and grandfathers.

BC is the only Catholic high school for boys in Savannah. It is the alma mater for numerous members of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.

“It’s been BC’s good fortune to be able to participate in this community event,” Benedictine Military School Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., said. “We are proud to be part of the Irish community, the Catholic community, the Savannah community, and we see our participation in this parade as a means of underlying that. BC, through the years, has helped drive the leadership core of Savannah and Georgia. BC takes substantial pride in the education they have provided for the youth, and this parade is a means of highlighting it. Its contributions to civic pride, to its awareness that we understand the roots of our freedoms, to be able to express our freedoms, and this parade is, again, another aspect of that. This parade is something that our graduates cherish, that our families hold dear, and that so many people within the community simply delight in.”

Bob Ciucevich, Benedictine Military School Class of 1986, in his book “Benedictine Military School in Savannah,” wrote: “During the early 1900s, the Cadets were well known in Savannah and were often asked to take part in various civic occasions, ceremonies, and military observances. However, the Corps of Cadets is best known for its annual participation in Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This tradition was begun by P.J. O’Connor, the president of Division One of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was affiliated with Sacred Heart Church. Fr. Aloysius O’Hanlon, O.S.B., the pastor of Sacred Heart, served as division and county chaplain for the AOH during the early 1900s. During the early years of the school’s development, the Cadets served as an honor guard for the AOH in the parade.”

Representing Benedictine in the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a rite of passage for generations of boys. It is an honor, and the impact is not lost on Cadets. For many, like Tommy Brunson, Benedictine Military School Class of 1962 and Grand Marshal of the 2000 Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it remains a highlight of their youth.

“You could depend on everybody to be just as perfect as they could during the parade,” Brunson said in the 1993 documentary “Ireland comes to Savannah,” which was written and produced by the late Craig Harney and televised on WTOC. “They were proud of it. We would get into the Old Fort area down off of East Broad and Broughton, and so forth, around there. And the band, we had a band back then, believe it or not, the band would play the Benedictine Fight Song. If you didn’t get chill bumps walking in that, you shouldn’t have been there anyhow because you didn’t understand what it was all about.”

LTC John Manson Owens III, Benedictine Military School Class of 1961, retired in 2013 after 27 years of service as BC’s Senior Army Instructor. In a 2008 interview with Robin Wright Gunn for Connect Savannah, Owens said, “Most of the Irish community have sent their boys to BC. There’s that bonding and pride. There’s almost a continuous wave of clapping when BC goes by.”

Benedictine Military School Athletic Director Jack Holland, Benedictine Military School Class of 2003 and Fine Gael Society President, told WTOC in an interview in 2022 that “St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah is obviously something we’re very proud of here in Savannah, but for us in the Fine Gael Society and all of the Irish societies in Savannah, today is such an important day. Not only is it the Feast of Saint Patrick, and we celebrate our faith and what Saint Patrick did with his time here on Earth, but we also celebrate our ancestors and those who came before us and made Savannah what it is today.”

City Hall cancelled the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2020, for the first time since World War II, as COVID-19 infections began to spread throughout Georgia. In 2021, City Hall again cancelled the parade as the pandemic persisted and vaccines were not available to people of all ages.

Hours before the 198th Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade began in 2022, Benedictine Military School junior James Thompson stood on one of Forsyth Park’s four tennis courts that BC uses each year as a staging area before marching in the parade.

Thompson looked around at the activity surrounding him as more than 360 of his 405 BC brothers buzzed about. Some Cadets were eating donuts. Others were helping each other make final adjustments to their uniforms as they prepared to march in Savannah’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade since 2019.

“There’s only one class marching today that’s ever marched before (in the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade) and that’s the senior class,” said Thompson, who was wearing his new BC Class of 2023 ring, which he received fewer than 24 hours earlier during BC’s annual Ring Day ceremony in BC Gym. “LTC (Stephen) Suhr told us the parade has gone on every single year except for the World Wars and the pandemic … I’m not nervous. I think it’s going to be fun. I’ve done other parades (Veterans Day and MLK Day). I don’t know how it’s going to compare.”

Finally, the parade was back. And BC was back in it. The coronavirus pandemic was still around but March 17, 2022, felt like a renewal of sorts, a return to life as we once knew it.

“It feels like we’re finally getting back to a sense of normalcy, and I think everybody is ready for that change,” Thompson said. “The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is just an example of how Savannah comes together and we’re one big community. We’re ready to see each other again.”

After the parade, BC’s Holland said it was a relief to be able to march again.

“The history and significance of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade as it relates to Benedictine is pretty special,” Holland said. “The Irish families who have helped make Savannah what it is today have always believed in the Benedictine monks and a strong Catholic education. Almost every Cadet has marched in the parade at some point and so many alumni have gone on to unselfishly work for the Parade Committee. To see our guys back on the street this year, proudly representing our school and all those who have come before them, it was definitely a sight for sore eyes.”

BC Senior Army Instructor LTC Stephen Suhr said the 2022 Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade represented a challenge because only one class, the BC Class of 2022, had experience marching in it prior to March 17.

"(BC’s) JROTC department placed special emphasis on the importance of this event in terms of the pride and legacy of our school, its alumni, and the greater Savannah community,” Suhr said. “The parade serves as the single-largest opportunity for the Corps of Cadets to showcase what Benedictine Military School is all about – putting our principles of character, spirituality, purpose, and brotherhood on full display.

“After not marching in the parade for two years, we had a very focused plan for preparing the Cadets this year,” Suhr continued. “The plan required ‘buy in’ from our senior Cadets – the only class with prior experience marching in the parade. Our Athletic Director, Mr. Jack Holland ’03, spoke to all five battalions of senior Cadets to underscore the significance of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and his words were definitely taken to heart. The Corps of Cadets truly ‘fell in line’ and marched in the parade with a sense of duty and respect that should make any alumnus proud.”

This year, the 2024 Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade is on March 16 - a Saturday, which always draws the largest crowds - and the Grand Marshal is a BC man - Mr. John Forbes, Benedictine Military School Class of 1986. Here at Ol' BC, we are counting down the days until it's showtime! Our Cadets will be ready. As retired LTC John Manson Owens III '61 liked to say, "When it's time to dance, they'll dance."