How Newark Abbey Symbolizes the Rebirth of a Diverse Community

In an evolving city, even the Benedictine monks have changed with the times.

newark abbey monks
Newark-born Simon Peter Clayton, left, and Asiel Maria Rodriguez, a native of Cuba, represent the new generation of Benedictine monks at Newark Abbey. Photo by Scott Jones

At the end of the angry week of racial strife that raged from coast to coast in late May following the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, more than 10,000 people rallied in central Newark, shouting for justice and demanding change. A few of the monks who live and work at Newark Abbey, the Benedictines’ home on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard since 1857, peeked out windows or went up to the roof to watch. Some, who had lived through 1967, feared a repeat of the awful summer that made Newark the symbol of urban unrest and threatened the existence of many of the city’s institutions, including St. Benedict’s Prep, the school run by the monks.

But while Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and other cities burned, Newark’s protest was generally peaceful and orderly. And, just as in 1967, the abbey of the Benedictine monks was untouched. 

Brother Simon Peter Clayton, one of the abbey’s newest members, watched the protesters from the sidewalk on the monastery property. “I honestly wasn’t afraid,” he says. Born in Newark in 1990 to a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, he is too young to have experienced the 1967 troubles, but was raised on the harrowing tales of that summer’s chaos. He has spent most of his 29 years in the ruins. Had it not been for the Covid-19 lockdown, he states, he would have marched with the protesters. 

“And I wouldn’t have been the only monk doing it,” he says. 

That Newark raised its voice against injustice with no protesters arrested and little property damaged is a sign of how much the city has changed in half a century. And the presence of Brother Simon in Newark Abbey—along with several other young members from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds—profoundly symbolizes the rebirth of a diverse community, one that not long ago was all but given up for dead. 

Even when the monks are cooped up inside, the abbey is an extraordinary place. Like a statue or a flag, it sends a powerful message of resilience simply by being there. The monks themselves represent a range of races, ages and ethnicities. They staff St. Mary’s Church and touch the community with numerous services, including one of the few local food banks that continued to operate during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

[RELATED: The New Us: Stories of Resilience and Hope]

Most visibly, the monks run one of Newark’s oldest educational complexes, serving 750 students from kindergarten through its premier school, St. Benedict’s Prep, where 78 percent of the students are Black or Latinx, and nearly all graduate and go on to college. Soon, they will establish a separate division for girls from the recently closed Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, a first for the monks.  

Conservative Christians have started to see monasteries and the rules laid down by St. Benedict in 516 A.D. as options for preserving their faith. But Newark Abbey is not the kind of sequestering they seek. Rather than isolating itself from the outside world, Newark Abbey welcomes it. That sends an important message at a time when rage against injustice is rattling the country.

* * *

After going many dry years with just a sprinkle of recruits, Newark Abbey today is home to 19 monks—half of them under age 40—as well as five more young men preparing to wear the black robes. When Brother Simon professed his solemn, lifelong vows, just as the Covid-19 lockdown was slamming shut the monastery in March, he was joined by a second young man, Brother Asiel María Rodríguez, a 29-year-old native of Cuba. It was the first time in 30 years that two monks had entered at once. They both prostrated themselves in front of the monastery community and pledged to spend the rest of their lives following the rules of St. Benedict while living and working in the gritty heart of Newark. 

To “place the ear of your heart on the solid ground,” as the monks are admonished in the very first line of the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, is to hear the city and the monastery beat in blessed rhythm. It wasn’t always so. After the 1967 disturbances that exploded nearby, enrollment at the high school declined precipitously. By 1972, the monks made the gut-wrenching decision to close the school. About a dozen of them left for a sister monastery in Morristown, while 24 monks remained in Newark. Under the leadership of Father Edwin Leahy, then just 26, they reconceptualized the school’s mission. If the white sons of the suburbs no longer were willing to venture into Newark, St. Benedict’s would reach out to the sons of the Black and Latinx families that still called Newark home. 

Brother Simon was one of them. He says the monks helped him through a dysfunctional home life that would have led to a difficult future. “I don’t know where I would be without them,” Brother Simon says. When he got lazy about attending class, the monks showed up at his door. After graduating, he attended St. Vincent, the Benedictine college in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he majored in business and dreamed that one day he’d repay the monks for all they had done for him. 

“In my dreams, I always saw myself standing at the center of the school gym wearing a slick, grey suit, with a white shirt, a turquoise bow tie, and of course, turquoise socks to match,” he says. The biggest imagined thrill in his dream always came after he asked the headmaster the size of the school’s entire debt. 

“I open my checkbook and say, ‘Here, Father,’ and hand over a check for $2 million.”

After graduation, Brother Simon did work in the financial services industry until, he says, God called him in a different direction. “Sometimes we’re so focused on finding what our purpose is. We find something, and we love it, and we’re passionate about it. But we trip ourselves up because we think that’s what God wants us to be, but it’s just not so.”

Now Brother Simon realizes he can contribute more than money to St. Benedict’s by helping boys who might be as lost as he once was. In the fall, he will manage the monastery’s kitchen and teach the sign language he learned as a child so he could communicate with his deaf parents.

Brother Asiel, the other new monk, is a newcomer to Newark. His mother was a Communist; his father, a devout Catholic. They divorced when he was three and his father left Cuba for the United States. Asiel remained with his mother in the city of Camagüey. She died when he was eight, and Asiel went to live with his grandparents. 

Religious beliefs were considered a black mark in Cuba, but Asiel was drawn to Catholic symbolism anyway. He found friends who felt the same about the church, and he embraced the sacraments. Then, when he turned 13, he refused to sign a document disavowing belief in God, a requisite for joining the Young Communist League. 

That rejection got him kicked out of school, but it mattered little, because in 2006, when he was 14, his father managed to bring him and his older brother, Adrian, to live in Union City, where he had settled years before. 

* * *

Asiel’s introduction to the United States was a letdown. “It was not what I expected to find at all,” he says. Compared to Camagüey, Union City was dumpy and uninspiring. But there was no turning back. While still in high school, he began training to become an Augustinian friar, like those in his local parish. He was sent to Spain to complete his training, but on a vacation home one year, he attended the annual “Monkfest” celebration that Newark Abbey holds to encourage recruits. The community he encountered there shone like a beacon. 

“Stability, that was the whole thing,” he says. He had already wandered enough. He craved stability—and stability was what he hoped to offer. 

“There’s a lot of emptiness in the lives of many of our students,” he says. “Their fathers are not present in their lives; that’s just a reality. One of the things I’d like to provide is stability. That’s huge.” 

Brother Asiel teaches religion, English as a second language and Spanish at the high school. In the monastery, he works with incoming recruits.

* * *

After more than four years of training, both monks professed their solemn vows—a lifelong commitment to the monastery, its leadership and to Newark—in a church practically sealed off from the city by the Covid-19 crisis. 

“It was very disappointing, like being married in an empty church,” Brother Asiel says. But the simple 90-minute ceremony was streamed live on YouTube. Both young men wore the heavy, black cuculla—a robe with 73 pleats, one for each of St. Benedict’s 73 rules. They confess that some rules are harder to abide than others. 

Brother Simon, who dreamed of turquoise socks and ties, says the obedience factor discussed throughout the rules can sometimes be difficult. For Brother Asiel, it’s rule 42, which calls for silence at most times, but especially at meals. “Good luck with that,” he says. In his Cuban household, meals are a daily sideshow of discussion and debate. Meals in the abbey are silent, except for one monk who reads aloud.

“It’s difficult for me to pay attention, and after a while, I sometimes just tune out,” says Brother Asiel. “But in every vocation and in every job, there are struggles.”  

Anthony DePalma, a longtime contributor to New Jersey Monthly, is author of several books, most recently, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times.
Read more Jersey Living articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown