Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

At the age of 4, Rita Macias Donohoe and her family left Cuba for the United States. It was 1967, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba was faced with mounting economic problems, medical shortages and a violent political regime. 

The family moved into an apartment in Richmond, finding safety in the close community that was already home to her grandparents. Donohoe found sanctuary at St. Benedict Catholic School (SBCS) which sat just blocks away. 

Founded in 1919, SBCS will be celebrating its centennial throughout the upcoming academic year. Donohoe believes its history of diversity is one of the reasons the school exists.

“As a Cuban immigrant, I felt safe and welcomed at SBCS. My family was very poor but received financial assistance so that I could attend, plus many other Cuban children were welcomed,” she said. “Wearing the uniform just like the other kids put us all in the same level. No one looked rich or poor. We all were SBCS students and we were all a group of good friends.”

Donahoe said that since her family were refugees, they were not charged tuition for her attendance at SBCS. Instead, they were asked to contribute whatever they could to the collection at church.

“Back then, $15-$20 was a lot of money, and my mother and father would give that amount per month,” she said.

Tuition at SBCS today costs $6,310 for a Catholic student and just over $9,000 for a student who is non-Catholic. 

Michelle Cisik and the rising sixth-graders at St. Benedict Catholic School during the 2018-2019 school year. Cisik is the dean of students and middle school English teacher. (Photo courtesy of St. Benedict Catholic School)

‘Classical education’ 

Tuition assistance is available for many families who otherwise would not be able to afford to send their children to SBCS, opening the door for more children to receive the school’s staple “classical education.” 

The classical approach nurtures students’ natural curiosity to help them reach their spiritual and educational potential. Students are taught Latin beginning in first grade, providing the building blocks for reading and cognitive skills. Focus is put on logic, reason and critical thinking, concurrently with Catholic values, guiding students to use virtuous and moral behavior in school and in life. 

“We form our students in faith, not just through religion class, but by infusing faith into everything we do,” said Sean Cruess, principal for the past 11 years. 

“Prayer is a frequent part of the school day. Students are reminded constantly to practice virtue, and our weekly Mass is reverent and beautiful,” he said. “Our faculty try to live out their faith daily, and we truly feel that students are not just entrusted to us by parents, but that they are entrusted to us by Jesus.”

Spiritual, moral formation 

In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, 5-year-old John Patrick “Pat” Gilman started attending St. Benedict. The Depression enveloped many, and he recalls nuns sleeping on hay beds and students walking in shoes riddled with holes. 

He also remembers the community banding together, filling the food pantry, procuring mattresses for the sisters and finding new shoes for the students.

He credits the nuns with helping shape him into the man he became.

“We were fortunate to have the sisters there teaching you and guiding you in the faith on a daily basis — taking you over to Church, teaching you prayers and hymns, and engaging you in the life of the parish,” Gilman said. “It formed you spiritually, strengthened you morally and made you good contributors to society.”

Benedictine Sister Charlotte Lange and her four siblings attended SBCS in the 1950s. She attended St. Gertrude High School before answering the call to religious life. From 1972-1982, she served as principal of SBCS — the last Benedictine sister to serve at the school.  

She explained that the school began inside the St. Benedict convent. Nuns taught there until the student population outgrew that facility, and a separate school building was erected in 1924. 

The school continued to physically grow and change. As it did, the convent was moved in order to build an addition to the school in 1949. While the convent is no longer there, the impact of the sisters is still felt. 

“It’s good to know that even though the sisters are no longer teaching there, the school is still actively involved in the life of the parish, and the Catholic formation of my past is alive at the school and being embraced by a large and dynamic community of Catholic families who seek the same quality education and faithful Catholic formation as my parents did nearly a century ago,” Gilman said.

Year-long observance

The centennial celebration will begin Sunday, Aug. 25, with the 11 a.m. Mass celebrated at St. Benedict Church. Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey, a 1966 SBCS graduate, and Father John David Ramsey, pastor of St. Benedict, will concelebrate. 

In 2020, a gala is scheduled for Saturday, April 25, and Bishop Barry C. Knestout will celebrate the centennial Mass at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 26, at the parish.

Among activities planned for students during the school year are “100 Acts of Service,” which will include feeding the homeless, participating in food drives and visiting the elderly.

Editor’s note: Further information about the St. Benedict School centennial celebration is available by contacting Centennial@saintbenedictschool.org.