ELIZABETH, NJ — This June, the city of Elizabeth will bid farewell to an institution that has been a pillar of the community for more than a century. Benedictine Academy is permanently closing its doors.
The academy, an all-girl’s Catholic high school founded in 1915, made the announcement on Feb. 24 in a letter posted to its website.
“We want to personally thank all of you who have graciously and thoughtfully supported Benedictine Academy,” said the letter, which was signed by Sister Mary Feehan, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters; Sister Sharon McHugh, president of the academy; and Eileen Moran, a member of the Advisory Board of Trustees.
The letter cited declining enrollment as the primary reason for shutting down the school.
“Over the last few years, Benedictine Academy has seen a steady decline in enrollment each year,” Director of Advancement Ray Brush told LocalSource on March 2. “In the last five years, total enrollment has decreased by 29 percent. Based on the academy’s enrollment projections for the 2020–2021 academic year, it was clear that it would not be possible to viably offer the range of courses and scope of extracurricular activities required to achieve the educational objectives our students, parents and faculty wanted.”
While the academy had enrolled 174 students for the 2014–2015 academic school year, projections indicated that the student population might drop to only 115 for the 2020–2021 academic school year. According to the director, 122 students are currently enrolled, with 35 seniors graduating in June. The incoming class of 2024 had only 20 students enrolled so far.
Benedictine Academy is the latest casualty of a broader national decline in Catholic education, with more than 1,000 elementary and secondary schools closing in the past ten years.
“Enrollment has basically been steady with slight fluctuations up and down annually since 1980,” said Brush. “In the last five years, Benedictine Academy’s enrollment picture changed dramatically, due to the majority of Catholic grammar schools in Elizabeth closing.”
Around 56 percent of Benedictine Academy students came from Catholic grammar schools. Elizabeth, once home to 15 Catholic grammar schools, now hosts only two. “Traditionally, students who attended Catholic grammar schools remained with the parochial education system,” Brush said. “They graduated from a faith-based grammar school and entered a faith-based high school. As each one of those Catholic grammar schools closed, there were fewer students interested in attending Catholic high school, including Benedictine Academy.
After sending their daughters to public grammar schools, which were tuition free, families generally were not interested in sending them to a private high school where they would have to pay tuition.”
Brush said changes in societal values — along with the “diminishing importance of religion” in the United States and “the crisis of the family”— have made faith-based education much less important to students and families, and less economically feasible.
As fewer people chose to live religious lives, and the religious themselves aged, Catholic schools had no choice but to hire lay professionals as teachers. This, in turn, “caused historically inexpensive grammar and high school tuitions to increase to levels where faith-based education isn’t an affordable option for many families despite generous financial aid.”
Benedictine Academy was founded in 1915 by the Benedictine Sisters of Elizabeth, a monastic community of religious women dedicated to education.
In 1920, the academy was fully accredited as a secondary school by the New Jersey Department of Public Instruction.
Graduates went on to receive baccalaureates and advanced degrees from some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.
The school has historically focused on academic growth and character formation in the Benedictine tradition.
Benedictine Academy intends to finish its last year on a strong note and will assist current underclassmen with transferring to other schools after the academy closes.
The school will hold a high school fair on Tuesday, March 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. in its gymnasium. Representatives from Immaculate Conception High School, Mother Seton Regional High School, Roselle Catholic High School, Mount St. Dominic Academy, Saint Vincent Academy and Union Catholic High School will meet with the classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023 and their families to discuss transferring to those schools.
Benedictine Academy’s administration has worked closely with the aforementioned schools to coordinate admissions, academic requirements and financial aid for transferring students.
It’s the end of an era for Benedictine Academy, and the farewell is bittersweet for faculty, students and parents.
“The Benedictine Sisters are deeply saddened by the closing of Benedictine Academy,” Sister Feehan told LocalSource. “We are grateful to have had the opportunity to educate the whole person spiritually, academically, and within the context of the strong value of community based on the Rule of St. Benedict. We are all very proud of the significant impact Benedictine Academy has had on Catholic education and generations of women.”