'An American Miracle': Woodside Priory celebrates founding 50 years ago
"An American miracle" is what Father Egon Javor calls the success of Woodside Priory School, founded on land in Portola Valley, purchased 50 years ago by exiled Hungarian monks.
"We were refugees. We had no money. We were unknown and we succeeded," Father Egon said in a 1998 interview.
He was one of the seven Benedictine monks who had fled Communist Hungary in the1950s and sought refuge in the United States. The monks were determined to start a small college preparatory school for boys in California, based on the Benedictine tradition dating back to 529 and Roman times.
Father Egon, who became the first prior to head the religious community here, recalls Emmet Cashin of Fox and Carskadon driving him around the hills in 1956, searching for a site. They came upon a small ranch house on an 18-acre property on a barren hillside off Portola Road.
"Oh, Father it's too far out," warned Mr. Cashin. But the land and the rural setting appealed to Father Egon as the location for the future boys college preparatory school.
Besides, recalled Father Egon, it was the cheapest property. The price was $80,000. The Hungarian monks, who had only $18,000 among them, had to borrow $5,000 for the down payment on the Gilson property.
"We were fortunate from the beginning," Father Egon said, adding: "We prayed a lot."
The monks lived their motto, "Ora et Labore," pray and work, as they moved into the small ranch house and built the monastery and school from the ground up. The Priory's first students — 14 boys — were due to arrive in September 1957, but as late as August there were no classrooms. Saved by the generosity of friends, the monks built a low-cost structure in a month.
Father Egon said he believed the Priory could not have developed the way it did in any country other than the United States. The freedom to pursue education was coupled with the generosity of local benefactors who not only contributed time and money, but also a new attitude. "We as teachers learned to be more American," he said.
The rest is an eventful and colorful history that will be celebrated on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 5 pm. That's when the entire Priory community, past and present, is invited to commemorate both Father Egon's 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the new Benedictine community's first Mass that Father Egon celebrated in the small ranch house on the newly acquired land.
The celebration will start with a special Mass in the Woodside Priory Chapel with a reception to follow in the school's dining hall. As with a family reunion, fond memories and stories will be shared by friends, colleagues and some of the 1,200 graduates who now live all over the world.
From its beginnings in a single ranch house, the Priory, now coeducational, has grown to include a middle school, a boarding program and a full range of academic classrooms, athletic facilities, art, science and computer labs and a well-stocked library. A performing arts auditorium, an expanded library and technology center, and the school's first student center are being added this school year.
"As I was thinking in the mid-1990s about how to face the challenge of aging facilities and the changing expectations of families, I would walk across the campus thinking about the monks in the early years, their risks and sacrifices," said Tim Molak, head of school. "That actually is what gave us the courage to modernize for the decades ahead, hopefully the next 50 years.
"Father Egon never dwells on his personal contributions, preferring to tell the stories of all of the people who helped the school thrive. His eyes light up, and he really takes joy in that."