St. Joseph’s Prep and the City of Philadelphia are intricately tied.
For 166 years, the Prep has been nestled in the heart of the city, working to educate young boys who will become leaders in our world. In 1966, a terrible fire destroyed much of the school’s physical campus and the Jesuits who ran the Prep had a decision to make: leave the city to reestablish itself in the suburbs, or stay in a North Philadelphia neighborhood that was changing. Conventional wisdom said to leave but the Jesuits are anything but conventional. They chose to stay at 17th and Girard and now, 51 years later, they look inspired as the school and city continue to be intertwined.
As part of the next Master Plan, Rev. John W. Swope, SJ ’72, President, plans to focus on Cura Urbi, or ‘Care for the City.’ Here Fr. Swope and his fellow Jesuit Rev. Chuck Frederico, SJ, Senior Director of Mission and Ministry, reflect on the school’s involvement with the city as well as service.
Fr. Swope: We Jesuits are urban animals. We work in the city and that means you wind up dealing with all of the complications and challenges of city life that come with it: poverty, violence, struggle and contention, policy battles. We tend to gravitate towards that and engage with that. We find God in there.
Fr. Frederico: When I first joined the Society, I remember a piece of art that ran in America magazine that said Benedictines took monasteries in the hillside, the Franciscans worked in the towns but the Jesuits worked in the cities. For us, in these cities, we minister to the leaders of the city but we also minister to the poorest of the poor. After the fire, it was a reality check for the Prep, to remind us what our mission is really about. It made a statement: we can help the city be better through the education that takes place in this school, by showing people the realities of what it means to live an Incarnational faith and recognize Jesus is all around us.
JS: The Prep has three great areas of concern: care for the person, care for the mission and care for the city. We want our students to be aware of what it means to be in Philadelphia and to engage with the problems our city faces. We think it makes them more mature men, develops a sense of social responsibility and almost a kind of an anger in how some things have continued to exist, and maybe inspire them as adults to act for the good of others and really care for our city. I think we all have a stake in the future of Philadelphia and we want to raise young men who are concerned with their city.
CF: One of the things that I repeat to the students is the phrase ‘men for and with others.’ That’s a transformational thing that has to take place over a course of their four years, so when they walk across the stage to receive their diploma they have real experience of how God is inviting them and their gifts. It is not just about putting their time in to get their 80 hours; it’s about going out and making a difference with other people who can really get more done together than with just one. So that ‘for and with’ is so important. What’s happening here is transforming you and hopefully enabling you to make a difference in the world.
JS: I think it’s very important for the Prep and our students to be associated with and provide service to organizations that are trying to improve people’s lives and empower the people they work with. Organizations like Project HOME, Philabundance, the Providence Center and a number of others. We want our students to watch the adults in these organizations, begin to imitate what they see, draw strength from it and be inspired. We want the boys to come away with an idea “if anything is going to happen in Philadelphia, people have got to get together.”
JS: My vision is that in 3 years times, the Prep will be an educational institution that is characterized by its relationships and will have entered into a number of strategic alliances for our North Philadelphia area, where we would provide these young men who do service: faith filled citizens of the city who are out providing service and collaborating with the mission of other institutions. We don’t want our guys thinking they know it all and kind of parachuting in like an emergency relief organization. We want our boys to be the hands of Christ moving in and providing a service, and learning to be members of an organization and to listen before they speak. We would be there all year long, and that connection, those moments, would help them understand their intuition in a different way; it would be a distinguishing characteristic of the school. I would love it if this became a movement of young people in the city, working with other schools so that there would be squadrons of these kids just going all over the city serving in a very regular way, not just in a one big bang thing, but in a way that would form part of the fabric of the city. That would be my kind of dream for it and that they would find Christ there in the person they are ministering to, and they would find Christ in their own hearts, inspiring them to go forward.
CF: Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and his predecessor Fr. Adolfo Nicolás often repeat that the two most important things that make a Jesuit a Jesuit and, subsequently, a Jesuit institution Jesuit are “depth and availability.” We need to help our students get to a greater depth at a time when culture is very shallow. We need to help them get there so they are available to assist in the issues of the world. We need our guys to go out and build bridges. Our service learning experiences, our mission service trips and our daily service experiences need to be bridge builders, for the men to have greater depth and to help culture be more in union and not disparate. I see it as a very important piece of getting to a more holistic education of the person.
CF: We are looking to have greater participation with the block captains. We are having regular conversations with them and expanding the opportunities that they have to engage with people they know in the neighborhood. It is through regular dialogue. Entering into conversation: listening as well as offering support. We can learn from people and the block captains have some very important observations and they have great ideas and with the skill sets of our young men we can make things happen.
JS: We can make the Prep much more available. The Prep is much less open to the surrounding community than it was 30 years ago, than it was when the Jesuits decided to rebuild here. We need to grow in that. We don’t need a Jesuit school here in North Philadelphia that looks like Fort Apache, where we are just looking out over the wall. Back in the 1960s and 70s, the Prep had a much broader idea of service than we have now. You saw the institution being of service, the Prep opening its doors, developing some modest programming for our immediate neighborhood. You know, we haven’t done too much of that in recent years but we are starting to do it more.
Another initiative that we have developed is a full service-learning course, a two-week class in June that will focus on food insecurity. Students will learn in the classroom, they will walk around the city and try to understand what they are seeing as well as do research and service. At the end, they will be advocates, making a presentation to officials from the City of Philadelphia with recommendations on solutions for food insecurity. That’s just one issue we can explore: we’ll move forward from there and perhaps look at housing and other issues faced by our fellow citizens here in Philadelphia.
JS: The Prep shares characteristics with every private, independent institution in the city. We are looking to have an impact and we are impacted by our surroundings. There’s this flow between the city and the Prep and the Prep and the city that’s been uninterrupted for 166 years. And it keeps changing; the kinds of things that wind their way into the conversations inside the Prep have changed over these 166 years. I have this deep abiding sense that we need to be responsive to what is coming at us from the city. We see the highest percentage of deep poverty, of any city in the country. We see an addiction problem and the use of opioids is completely out of control in some of our neighborhoods. We still have a housing crisis in spite of all of the development we see around. There is a major homeless problem here, which Sr. Mary Scullion at Project HOME brings forward at every opportunity, and she is spot on and she knows exactly what she is talking about. So those things that come to us, these concerns, these problems, they see them and they reflect on them. We need to look at that and we need to respond.