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updated: 3/2/2012 9:21 AM

Lisle's Benet Academy celebrating 125 years of education

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  • This is the main entrance to the all-male St. Procopius Academy, later renamed Benet Academy when it opened to the female students of Sacred Heart Academy.

      This is the main entrance to the all-male St. Procopius Academy, later renamed Benet Academy when it opened to the female students of Sacred Heart Academy.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • Students study in a "commercial study hall" around 1909 at St. Procopius Academy, which became Benet Academy. The institution celebrates its 125th anniversary March 2.

      Students study in a "commercial study hall" around 1909 at St. Procopius Academy, which became Benet Academy. The institution celebrates its 125th anniversary March 2.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • The 1909 St. Procopius Academy orchestra was a precursor to the fine arts programs offered today at Benet Academy.

      The 1909 St. Procopius Academy orchestra was a precursor to the fine arts programs offered today at Benet Academy.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • St. Procopius Academy students, like those in a junior study hall circa 1911, were taught on the campus of St. Procopius College.

      St. Procopius Academy students, like those in a junior study hall circa 1911, were taught on the campus of St. Procopius College.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • The first 10 students (pictured with four instructors in the back row) graduated from the Lisle St. Procopius College in 1901. The college initially included a high school academy. The programs became distinct and now are Benedictine University and Benet Academy.

      The first 10 students (pictured with four instructors in the back row) graduated from the Lisle St. Procopius College in 1901. The college initially included a high school academy. The programs became distinct and now are Benedictine University and Benet Academy.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • Benet Academy and Benedictine University trace their roots to this schoolhouse, which opened March 2, 1887, in the Pilsen area on the near West Side of Chicago. There were only three small classrooms, no schoolyard and no science labs. School founder Father Procopius Neuzil recalled that when students wanted to study nature, they would go to a park or quarry to study rocks.

      Benet Academy and Benedictine University trace their roots to this schoolhouse, which opened March 2, 1887, in the Pilsen area on the near West Side of Chicago. There were only three small classrooms, no schoolyard and no science labs. School founder Father Procopius Neuzil recalled that when students wanted to study nature, they would go to a park or quarry to study rocks.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • The easternmost building on the campus of Benet Academy is St. Daniel Hall, the performing arts center added in 2001.

      The easternmost building on the campus of Benet Academy is St. Daniel Hall, the performing arts center added in 2001.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • The Benet Academy campus has grown over the years and now includes the St. Ronald Gymnasium, added in 1994 at the west end.

      The Benet Academy campus has grown over the years and now includes the St. Ronald Gymnasium, added in 1994 at the west end.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • Benet Academy features St. Joseph Hall, left, and Benet Hall, foreground -- both original to the campus -- as well as newer additions such as St. Thomas Hall, completed in 1975 to join the two older buildings.

      Benet Academy features St. Joseph Hall, left, and Benet Hall, foreground -- both original to the campus -- as well as newer additions such as St. Thomas Hall, completed in 1975 to join the two older buildings.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

  • St. Martin Hall was added to Benet Academy in 1963.

      St. Martin Hall was added to Benet Academy in 1963.
    Courtesy of the Benedictine archives

 
 

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the date of the anniversay to Friday, March 2..

On the Benet Academy school calendar this year, Founders' Day will encompass a whole week and impact its year.

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Friday, March 2, is the 125th birthday of the college preparatory, Catholic high school in Lisle.

The celebrations promise an inspiring start to the future.

As preparations get under way, a large banner adorns the Benedictine school's entrance; a sign counts down the days at the dean's office; and daily announcements share a historical fact or two. Plans for this week included spirit day, a birthday cake, historic video, hallways adorned by student clubs and a day to sideline the traditional school uniform in favor of fashions from yesteryear.

Founders' Day will start with the entire student body and faculty holding hands around the outside perimeter of their school while singing Happy Birthday and the school's fight song. Inside, an all-school Mass will follow. The two activities highlight the value of the Benet family and its religious legacy.

Celebrating 125 years is quite an achievement.

While many things changed over the years, including the school's name, its buildings and location, Benet's commitment to academic excellence and spiritual growth have never wavered.

The story began in 1887, 16 years after the Great Chicago Fire. Grover Cleveland was the president; our flag had 38 stars. Work on the Panama Canal continued, and Chicagoans admired the world's first skyscraper.

On the West Side of Chicago, a handful of faith-filled Benedictine monks had a vision to establish a school for the young sons of Czech and Slovak immigrants. St. Procopius College began in a two-story school house, with three small classrooms and two students. The term "college" was used in the European tradition for any formal education beyond the eighth grade.

Within the next decade, dreams for expansion brought the monks from St. Procopius Abbey to rural DuPage County. In Lisle, a few miles from the train station, the monks purchased three parcels of land totaling 254 acres, including what is now the Benedictine University and Benet Academy campuses.

One of the parcels, the 104-acre Neff Farm, included cornfields and a sturdy stone farmhouse, which still remains near the entrance to Benedictine University on College Road. The house -- with its furniture, a top buggy and 40 hens -- sold for $6,240, as reported in the Clerestory publication written by Father James from St. Procopius Abbey. With a goal of being self-sustaining, the farm operation soon produced eggs, meat, milk and vegetables.

A building with classrooms, boarding rooms, offices and a chapel opened in 1901 with 10 students. Three years later, the academy's curriculum grew to include all four years of high school. Classes at that time were taught in the Czech language six days a week.

Additions included science labs as the education stretched beyond the high school levels. Records show that in 1908 there were 100 students and, in 1920, the tuition and boarding expense were $150 per semester.

The Benedictine monks joined with the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery to establish St. Joseph's Bohemian Orphanage from 1898 to 1954. St. Joseph Hall and Benet Hall were built to serve as its school and dormitory.

In 1955, St. Procopius College sought accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission of North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. One condition for acceptance was that the college and high school could not share the same campus.

Until then, the academy and college were housed together south of Maple Avenue. To facilitate the college accreditation, the academy was moved across the street while St. Procopius college continued on the campus, becoming Illinois Benedictine College in 1971 and Benedictine University in 1996. It, too, celebrates its 125th birthday this year.

St. Procopius Academy, the all-male boarding and day-hop school, moved into the empty orphanage buildings at 2200 Maple Ave. for the fall semester in 1956. The two buildings are the oldest structures on campus today.

In 1967, the academy merged with the all-girl Sacred Heart Academy, established by the Benedictine Sisters in 1926 and located across the street. The merger became the coeducational day school, Benet Academy.

To meet the growing enrollment and student educational needs, St. Martin Hall was built in 1963, St. Thomas Hall in 1975, St. Ronald Gymnasium in 1994, St. Daniel Performing Arts Center in 2001, and St. Jude Science and Activity Center in 2009. Plans are under way to expand athletic fields and parking to land the academy acquired west of campus.

Academics are valued. The school has approximately 1,350 students coming from 60 surrounding communities. All take a competitive entrance exam for admission. Among the 338 seniors in the graduating Class of 2012, 149 are Illinois State Scholars, 31 are National Merit Commended Scholars and 10 are National Merit Finalists.

The ACT composite score for 2011 graduates was 28.7, compared with a national composite score of 21.1 and an Illinois composite score of 20.9. The school offers 11 AP courses, 14 honor courses and two college-level courses.

Recognizing that not all education takes place in the classroom, Benet offers 33 clubs and activities along with 17 sports to challenge students.

The traditional Froshfest introduces freshmen to the school, homecoming includes an alumni tailgate gathering and the Variety Show and Mr. Redwing contests generate good times.

The Redwings have proved themselves worthy competitors in the water, on ice, on the floor and field, and on the court or course.

One of the great traditions was born in 1966 when the Christmas fund drive raised $650 and donated turkeys and clothing to help people in need. The annual drive in 2011 raised a staggering $62,524.71, plus donated toys and clothes for individuals and families who need support.

Other outreach programs includes the girls volleyball Volley vs. Cancer program that raised $6,000 to benefit the cancer center at Loyola Hospital and to help establish the Sheila Jacklich Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor a beloved French teacher and assistant dean of students at Benet for 31 years.

The school's sense of family is compelling. Thirty-one current faculty and staff members are Benet alumni. Retired teacher Tim White set a school record, teaching at the school for 52 years. Another dozen teachers taught at Benet from 35 to 46 years.

The Rev. Jude Randall, president since 1992, said, "Benet Academy offers a unique Benedictine education characterized by an emphasis on character, high academic achievement and spiritual growth."

Even after 125 years, the school's vision, commitment and excellence articulate a pride in its past and a faith for its future.

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle.

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