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The Beginning

St. Joseph's Preparatory School was founded in 1851 in Philadelphia. The school grew out of a small church created by Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J. in center city in 1733. As the city and the parish grew over time, the Jesuits of the Maryland Province decided to create St. Joseph's College with a preparatory department to serve the public.

The college was first located in Willings Alley at the site of Fr. Greaton's residence, but in the late 1800s the school moved to Girard Avenue. The new location allowed for the building of a new school and a new church, the Gesu. Soon after the move, St. Joseph's College moved to City Line Avenue leaving all the buildings for St. Joseph's Preparatory School.

The school continued to grow and change over the next seventy years until a devastating fire in January 1966 burned two-thirds of the school down. While at this time it would have been easy to move out to the suburbs as other schools were doing, the Jesuits chose to remain here, in this urban environment.

Sixteen months after the fire, The Prep was rebuilding again on Girard Avenue. The traditions of The Prep still continue today as the school, the faculty, and the student body continue to grow and change.

Early Philadelphia

William Penn founded Philadelphia as the economic and political capital of his colony in 1682. By 1730, Philadelphia had a population of 8,500 - putting it in the first tier of American cities along with New York and Boston. Forty years later, Philadelphia ranked first among colonial cities with a population of 28,000.

The U.S. was about 95% rural and Pennsylvania was no exception. Goods, especially grain from the backcountry, made their ways down creeks and roads to the navigable waters of the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Farms and open country still occupied most of the peninsula between the two rivers. The Ridge, which today is a slow and crowded urban street, was a country road leading from the port area on the Delaware past a number of country estates.

Several printers, including Ben Franklin, established shops to serve many colonial government, business and literary interests. Philadelphia had several newspapers and a magazine even before the Revolution. While Boston was the center of revolutionary agitation, Philadelphia, as a center of trade situated in the center of the seacoast, became the meeting ground for the Founding Fathers.

By the year of The Prep’s founding, Philadelphia had begun to exist as a major industrial center. In the 1850 Census Philadelphia had slipped to fourth nationally despite the growth of its population to 121,376. However, two factors were already beginning to change, the city's economic and ethnic face. Germans fleeing the failed Revolutions of 1848 and Irish fleeing the famine flocked to the Delaware Valley where employment was plentiful and growing. Steam was making it possible to build factories away from rushing streams and near large population centers. It could drive factory equipment and move the goods to market. Scattered towns on the banks of the two rivers blended into one. Philadelphia ranked 4th among American cities in 1850 only because of its compact design.

One of the most important companies for the city, and eventually for The Prep, was the Baldwin Locomotive works. Located at Broad and Callowhill Streets, just opposite the Inquirer building, it helped to strengthen the movement of industry and population away from the old city into what were then industrial suburbs.

Catholics in Philadelphia

In May of 1733, Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J. bought property between Third and Fourth Streets and south of Walnut. This site would become the first Catholic Church in Philadelphia. The climate for Catholics in Philadelphia was very intolerant at the time. Not long after the church's completion, Protestants complained to the Governor that this "Popish Chapel" was against the law of England. Fr. Greaton claimed his right to have the church under William Penn and the church was allowed to remain open. It was the only place in the English-speaking world where public celebration of mass was permitted by law. The church was dedicated to St. Joseph, the Guardian of The Holy Family. The present Name of St. Joseph's Preparatory School derives directly from St. Joseph's Church.

As 1850 approached the city entered the manufacturing age. With it’s growth and population, charitable and religious societies came to Philadelphia and began to provide free education. The appearance of Catholic immigrants in Philadelphia, especially the Irish, in the 1840s complicated the politics of the city and its schools. Catholics had objected to Protestant prayers and use of the King James version of the Bible. When the school Board finally responded by removing the Bible from Public schools a three day anti-Catholic riot ensued. The Old St. Augustine's Church was burned to the ground in that riot.

The Start of St. Joseph's Prep

Fr. Greaton's residence and small chapel in center city soon became surrounded by the growing city. The Jesuits decided to open a college to serve its population. In 1851, St. Joseph’s College opened in the buildings of St. Joseph’s Parish off Willings Alley, just a couple of blocks from Independence Hall. By then a permanent church had replaced the old Chapel attached to the Jesuit Residence. Over the years, two additional stories had been added to Fr. Greaton’s residence. The College, which consisted largely of a preparatory department, held class in these rooms.

On September 15, 1851, ninety-five students greeted Fr. Felix Barbelin, the first President of St. Joseph’s College, for their first day of class. The founding of the school was chartered by the State of Pennsylvania when it incorporated the school under the title of "The St. Joseph's College In The City of Philadelphia" on January 29, 1852.

The order of the day for these early students was very detailed. All had Mass at 8:00am and classes began at 8:30am. These early classes were probably Latin or Greek. At 10:25am Mathematics class began. At lunch time, students were given until 2:00pm to return to class because many of them had far to go to get their lunch. In the afternoon, students were in German, French, and Classical Studies until school ended at 5:00pm. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons there was no school. Catechism was Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. On Mondays students were to present a ticket from their own church indicating that they had been to confession on Saturday.

There were strict regulations that the students had to follow as members of the St. Joseph's community. The students were to be polite with their teachers and friendly with their classmates. The regulations stressed neatness and directed the students in their hair styles, dress, and state of their desks. There were strict rules about silence in the chapel, classrooms, and hallways. The students were aware that they were to go home directly after classes and not to play in the neighborhood. They were also informed that study should occur from 6:00 - 8:00pm every night and 6:00 - 7:00am before they arrived at school each day.

Within three years the school offered a commercial as well as a classical course and was bursting at the seams. The old part of the city was becoming more commercial and less residential, so the college purchased an unoccupied parish school building farther west and north at Filbert and Juniper Streets, near today's City Hall. The move to Filbert and Juniper, was a short, unhappy experiment. Whether it was the new location, the sudden drop in immigration in 1854 as the effects of the Irish potato famine lessened, or the collapse of the economy following the 1857 Panic, the College/Prep attendance dropped significantly. The debt service for the new building was so great that the school was forced to give it up and return to Willings Alley in 1860. From 1861 to 1889 the College department ceased operations but the Preparatory Department continued in some form. During this ignominious period in its history The Prep’s former building on Juniper Street was first used by The Academy of Notre Dame and then by LaSalle. The Prep tradition was carried on by a few students studying classical languages in the parlors of the rectory at Willings Alley.

History: Moving to Girard Ave.

In 1876, the land that is now St. Joe’s Prep was open country that was near the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park. The Centennial's purpose was to celebrate the country’s 100th year of independence. For the Centennial Exposition, the old wooden bridge at Girard Avenue was replaced with a new steel one, which subsequently led to the development of the Girard Area. Around this time, the Jesuits of the Maryland Province were making plans for another parish in a part of the city more conducive to operating a college. The Girard Area seemed like a natural place because it was a blossoming suburb with Girard Gollege, Eastern State Prison, a hospital, and a reservoir. Fr. Barbelin found an undeveloped block measuring 395 feet by 259 feet between 18th and 17th Streets and bounded on north and south by Thompson and Stiles Streets. Because of its high water table no one else had built there. While the owner wanted an inflated price of $60,000 he eventually settled for $45,000, and the transaction was completed on November 20, 1866.

Building a Parish

In 1868, just as the existing College at Willings Alley was fading to 60 students, Rev.. Burchard Villiger, S.J. took up residence in North Philadelphila to begin the building of a parish, a lower school and a college off of Girard Avenue.

The original building housed a chapel and classrooms in the basement and a Jesuit residence on the back. The basement was completed in 1873 and grade school classes as well as Greek and Latin constituted what was called the Preparatory department of St. Joseph’s College. At first the parish was called New St. Joseph’s, but this was very confusing, so the name was changed to Holy Family Church.

This complex was no sooner completed in 1879 than work began on what would later be called the Gesu Church. Fr. Villiger’s wisdom was not always apparent. The Gesu church was a massive undertaking for a new parish, burdened with debt from the land purchase and the $30,000 for the Stiles Street building. A shortage of funds as well as design and construction problems slowed its completion. Francis Drexel, the father of Mother Catherine, died in 1885 leaving St. Joseph’s College $72,000, relieving the “College” of one problem. On Oct 8, 1888, Fr. Villiger celebrated his 50th anniversary in the Society of Jesus in the midst of pomp and scaffolds in the new Gesu Church. This great new church did not command the view of Girard Avenue that it does today. St. Matthews Episcopal church occupied the corner of 18th and Girard. The original interior of the church was painted white, presumably for reasons of cost, light and taste.

A New School

Freed from major debt by the Drexel money, St Joseph’s actively recruited students again in the Fall of 1889, in the building just vacated by the parish when it moved to the other end of the block. Fewer than 80 of the 300 applicants were allowed to begin classes in the first year of the College’s revival. The number of applicants were no doubt bolstered by the decision not to charge any tuition. Besides the desire to provide an education for all students without regard to income, the school also faced the hostility of City government, which indicated its intention to tax the school property if it were not a completely charitable operation.

The building debt having consumed Mr. Drexel’s money, there was no endowment to pay for a free school, but there was a growing parish with good income and a huge debt free church. The Gesu parish supported the Jesuits who ran the college at a cost of over $6,000 per year. Rapid growth pushed the student body to 25 in the college and 144 in the Preparatory department in 1893. The original structure became inadequate, but had been designed for future expansion. A corner building was built in front of the old Holy Family Church, and the roof of the old church was raised to allow for an auditorium on the upper level and offices on the lower level along Stiles Street. The classrooms extended up 17th Street. This new building would hold 280 students in 1899. This was a large enough number to begin planning the separation of the College division and the Preparatory department.

The Gesu School had already begun to operate separately in a building occupying a space facing 17th Street south of Stiles. The Dean of Students office and the theater occupy that area today. Just as war was breaking out in Europe in 1914 the Jesuits were moving into their new residence at the corner of 18th and Thompson. As soon as it was finished, the old Stiles Street residence adjacent to the Gesu, was converted into a chapel and classrooms, but the major addition was the huge 60 by 30 foot third floor gym. The growth of the student population provided the impetus to complete the block of building. The building now housing the Gesu school was built in 1923, as Villiger Hall for the College division. The caged in roof of the Thompson Street building provided additional sports space even as buildings covered the available ground. The Thompson Street building also recognized the emerging importance of laboratory science with the installation in student experimental labs. Just to the right of the Gesu was the old residence which had been converted into a gym, just beyond that flat roof to the right was the auditorium. The 17th Street building with its two towers had classrooms and the fabled marble stairway. The Gesu School, having moved out of its original buildings to make room for the expanding College, needed more space and built the Convent which still stand across 17th Street.

Even with all the extra space, the College division continued plans to move to City Line Avenue. Once that move was complete, the Prep would occupy all of the school buildings on the original block. The transition to two distinct institutions began in 1890 and was completed in 1927 when the first class building of St. Joe’s College opened on City Line Avenue.

By the 1920’s The Prep had taken on many of the characteristics of a modern high school, including a powerful football tradition. In the 1920s and 30s The Prep won 9 Catholic League football Championships, including 6 under the legendary coach “Ank” Scanlon. Now The Prep had the entire building to itself. Despite the Depression, which began just two years after the separation, The Prep’s student population almost doubled from 464 in 1927 to 735 by 1939. This occurred despite the tuition increase to $150 per year. The separation of the College and its Preparatory department, and the rapid increase in student population meant that the faculty needed to increase beyond the power of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in order to keep pace. Soon there were 14 lay faculty teaching along with the 12 Jesuits at the school.

The Fire

On a cold, blustery night in January the history of St. Joseph's Prep changed suddenly. A fire broke out at 5:20am in the basement of the Stiles Street building. The fire was probably sparked by an electrical problem and initially the firemen thought they had it under control. However, soon the fire raged out of control and turned into 8-alarms with two hundred firemen fighting the blaze. The fire quickly engulfed the building and the freezing cold air turned the firefighter's water to ice. Half of the block was a total loss and so dangerous that demolition was begun immediately. The Prep’s hallmark marble staircase was snowcoated and icicles hung from the ceilings.

Luckily, the Jesuits rushed to the Thompson Street building and closed the fire doors, which saved what is now the Gesu School and important records and files in the Principal's office. Those doors are still visible under the stucco on the Gesu school building next to the facade of the new Fieldhouse.

The fire razed two-thirds of the Prep building, but students were not out of class long. Even as the clean up and demolition continued, classes opened a week after the fire using every square inch of Villiger Hall on Thompson Street. The band practiced in the empty pool, the cafeteria and ends of hallways were converted to classrooms, and unused classrooms in the Gesu Convent were used for Prep classes. Soon the planning began for a new school.


Before the fire, The Prep had already begun acquiring land for outdoor athletic facilities and a plaza. Much of the area in front of the Prep was already owned by the school or the parish, so the fire changed the vision for the block between Stiles and Girard. The Gesu grade school vacated their home in the old Quaker school and moved to temporary quarters blocks away to make room for the new building. During the 1960s, the Southwest corner of Stiles and 18th Street housed the Gesu parish center and was the intended site for the construction of a new Gesu School. There had been a great deal of discussion of moving to the suburbs, but the easy access to the subway, trolley and commuter lines meant that The Prep could not only stay to serve the people of North Philadelphia, but also the entire region.

Construction began in May 1967, sixteen months after the fire. The money had not been raised to complete the project. Instead The Prep took out a 30 year mortgage which was just recently repaid. The new modern Prep cost five million dollars. Two million dollars came from insurance from the fire, while two more million was raised through the generosity of alumni, faculty, and friends of The Prep. The new building had a pool with a balcony and large windows to brighten it. The new gym floor was laid on wooden beams supported by thousands of small leaf springs. Today this is the cafeteria floor. The marble stairs from the old building had been buried under the glass and slate foyer to signify the strength of The Prep.

The Prep Shield

UPPER LEFT: Seven stripes number the sons of the House of Loyola

UPPER RIGHT: Two wolves over a kettle signify the hospitality of the House, even to the beasts of the field

LOWER LEFT: The lilies of St. Joseph symbolize the purity which was his crowning virtue

LOWER RIGHT: The seal of the Society of Jesus, containing the Greek letters IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus

St. Joseph's Preparatory School
1733 West Girard Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19130
tel: 215.978.1950
fax: 215.765.1710
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