St. Benedict’s 1st class of girls are now seniors — and grateful for opportunity

All-boys school for more than 150 years finds decision to go co-ed in 2020 is working out for all

It seems like a blink since Lucia Gallo was in eighth grade, sitting in the cafeteria at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark. The topic of discussion that day was the impending closure of the all-girls Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth and its plans to immediately shut down.

It was March 11, 2020 — just days before the pandemic hit. The impending health crisis would add a whole new level of uncertainty as to where Lucia and the other girls would attend school the next year.

Lucia, though, was excited. One of eight children, both her parents worked at St. Benedict’s Prep; she had spent the first five years of her life on campus, residing with her family. That day in the cafeteria, Lucia was hearing for the first time that her dream might actually happen: She could be among the first class of girls accepted at the 155-year-old, all-boys parochial school.

But, first, there was a question of cost. Tuition assistance would be needed for many of the 80 girls from Benedictine Academy and Cristo Rey Newark High School, which also shuttered at the time. How would that happen on such short notice?

St. Benedict’s Prep turned to the Golden Dome Foundation, funded by its co-founder, Mary Ellen Harris, a Benedictine Academy graduate, and enthusiastically supported by its board of directors, including Col. Charles Grinnell, Paul Petigrow and Mike Schwager. She immediately pledged $500,000 in tuition assistance, split evenly among the boys and girls divisions, in the memory of her late husband, Robert Harris, a proud 1964 St. Benedict’s graduate.

Officially called the “Dr. Robert H. Harris Memorial Scholarship Fund,” it launched in August 2020. This scholarship provided financial aid in the 2020-21 school year for 27 boys and 27 girls.

Fast forward to 2023. Lucia is now in her senior year at St. Benedict’s Prep, one of 20 girls in her class preparing to graduate. She has high hopes of attending Princeton University to study economics. If not, she would eagerly accept the opportunity to study business marketing in her hometown, at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Lucia said she would never have such bright options without the generosity of Harris and her foundation, which, she says, made her St. Benedict’s Prep education possible.

“I am a direct product of that donation from the Golden Dome Foundation, which has opened up this new world for me,” Lucia said. “Coming from an inner-city family, with seven other siblings and two parents who are teachers, there’s not a lot of money in the house. I need to rely on the generosity of donors and scholarships. And this foundation really came through for me when I needed it the most.”

Jayden Forniel, 17, of Newark, another beneficiary of the 2020 donation, described the tuition assistance for his freshman year as a “seed.” At the time, he did not want to attend St. Benedict’s Prep and did not have any deep thoughts about the beneficiary who was opening this door for him.

“But, then, I came here, and my thinking has been a complete 180-degree change,” Jayden said. “The Golden Dome Foundation’s donation was a seed for me. It made it possible for me, as a product of Newark, to come to school here, and to now live here. And it has set me on a course I could never have dreamed of in 2020.”

Because of that seed, nurtured at St. Benedict’s Prep, the self-described “inner-city product” has set his sights on attending Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, founded in 1889 by the Benedictine monks of St. Mary’s Abbey of Newark. Jayden hopes to study psychology and English, while hopefully enlisting in the Marines to serve as a clinical psychologist.

“Without the foundation, I would not be here,” Jayden said. “My family cannot afford this. I have three other siblings in public schools who hope to follow in my footsteps and come here. That can’t be done without donors who see our potential and recognize what we can accomplish if they are willing to invest in us. It’s why I am so appreciative.”

Harris recalled that donation in 2020 was the perfect opportunity for the Golden Dome Foundation to make a difference in the lives of Newark teens.

“We want to see the kids get a good education,” Harris said. “They can’t do it on their own without people believing in them. And we believe in them, wholeheartedly.”

Harris and her husband have deep roots at St. Benedict’s Prep. They met as students at their respective Benedictine high schools.

Robert Harris then went on to the University of Notre Dame, earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Rutgers University, became a leading research scientist at Warner Lambert and American Home Products and held posts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes for Health and Georgetown University Medical Center. At the urging of his wife, they formed a company, Harris FRC Corp., and later developed VIMPAT, a widely prescribed drug used in the treatment of epilepsy. He died in 2017.

“Bob is still very present in my life,” Harris said. “I like supporting institutions that had such significance in his life.”

St. Benedict’s Prep continues to grow and thrive, with 165 girls enrolled in grades 9-12. Tuition and fees are an estimated $16,000 a year, but scholarships, financial aid and grants drive down the cost. The average family pays $5,500-$6,000 a year because of the generosity of the Golden Dome Foundation and other benefactors, school officials said.

Michael Fazio, chief advancement officer at St. Benedict’s Prep, said Harris was an “essential teammate” at a moment when she was needed the most.

“This June, we will graduate our first class of young women who have attended St. Benedict’s for a full four years,” Fazio said. “These are many of the young ladies Mrs. Harris came to know during her visits. We are incredibly grateful. Without the Golden Dome Foundation’s early support, I’m not sure this graduation would be possible.”

Judith Lolli, a longtime friend of Harris and her late husband, said, “It has been such an honor to see how the good works of Dr. Bob and Mary Ellen have improved the lives of these impressive young people, like Lucia and Jayden.

“My wish for them is that they become as successful and giving as Dr. Bob and Mary Ellen.”