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Benedictines’ Woodside Priory heir to 1,500 years of a monastic tradition

May 15, 2015
Father Martin Mager, OSB
Woodside Priory Monastic Superior

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

The Order of Saint Benedict, usually referred to as the Benedictines, has been a powerful influence in the history of the Catholic church since the sixth century when a charismatic Roman young man, Benedict, left the city of his birth to live the life of a hermit. Roman civilization was at that time under siege from the Barbarians on the outside and moral and political corruption on the inside. Although Benedict chose to live a solitary life in a cave, he was soon recognized as a holy man by others who wished to follow Christ in a community setting, and thus was born the Benedictine way of life.

Benedict was regarded as the father of a growing number of followers and thus became known as Abbot, the Latin word for “father.” Around the year 540, Benedict saw the need to formulate some guidelines for community living and so he wrote a short set of rules which became known as The Holy Rule. It is that same rule which guides Benedictine monasteries worldwide to this day.

Woodside Priory is heir to 1,500 years of a monastic tradition of learning guided by the influence of the Holy Rule. This rule is unfolded at Woodside Priory School that was founded by seven Hungarian monks from the monastery of Pannonhalma in 1957. The founding of the school followed the revolution of that decade when Hungarian patriots made a valiant effort to overthrow the Russian Communist regime that had oppressed citizens and targeted religion as an enemy of the state. The seven escaped the country and came to the United States. After a few years, they came to California to establish the Priory School as a college preparatory school for boys.

Seeing the need for a less European influence, the Priory was joined by monks from St. Anselm monastery in New Hampshire in 1975, a collaboration that has existed ever since with the St. Anselm Abbot as spiritual father of both houses.

The Priory remained an all-boys school until 1991 when it became coed. The Benedictine values of Community, Individuality, Spirituality, Integrity, and Hospitality are the hallmarks of the educational philosophy at the Priory. Classes are kept small so that interaction between teacher and student may be spontaneous and supportive of student initiative. The concept of listening is emphasized for both teacher and student so that learning may take place in an environment of creative respect.

In addition to a rigorous academic program, students are encouraged to become involved in the arts, drama, athletics and extracurricular activities and to risk going beyond their comfort zone. It is expected that each student will become involved in community service activities at a serious level. Seniors must fulfill a senior project requirement that involves intense focus on some area of interest which is unrelated to the school curriculum. Each senior must make a presentation before faculty members as well as students to complete their project.

The Benedictine community was welcomed into the Archdiocese of San Francisco by Archbishop John Mitty over a half-century ago, and has been privileged to serve in many parishes over the years. Their ministry has touched others in a variety of ways through retreats, Cursillo activities, Taize services as well as liturgical celebrations that include people who have no affiliation with the school. The monks are grateful for the many years that they have been welcomed by the clergy and laity of the archdiocese.

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