About Us


History of St. Joseph’s Prep

1733: St. Joseph’s Church Founded in Old City

In May of 1733, Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J. bought property between 3rd and 4th Streets and south of Walnut which would be the site of 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.

1851: St. Joseph's Prep Opens as Part of Saint Joseph’s College

St. Joseph's Preparatory 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 Saint Joseph's College with a preparatory department to serve the public.

On September 15, 1851, 95 students greeted Fr. Felix Barbelin, the first school’s first President, for their first day of class. The order of the day for these early students was very detailed. All had Mass at 8 am and classes began at 8:30 am, most likely in Latin or Greek. At 10:25 am Mathematics class began. At lunch time, students were given until 2 pm 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 5pm. 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.

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 from 1861 to 1889 the College Department ceased operations but the Preparatory Department continued in some form.

1866: Moving to Girard Avenue

In 1876, the land that is now St. Joe’s Prep was open country that was near the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, which celebrated 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 College, Eastern State Prison, a hospital, and a reservoir. Fr. Barbelin found an undeveloped block between 17th and 18th 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.

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 Philadelphia 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 Church of the Gesu. Fr. Villiger’s wisdom was not always apparent as 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 St. Katherine Drexel, died in 1885 leaving Saint 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.

1889: A New School

Freed from major debt by the Drexel money, St. Joseph’s actively recruited students again, 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 Gesu parish supported the Jesuits who ran the college and rapid growth pushed the student body to 25 in the college and 144 in the Prep 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.

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 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. The 17th Street building with its two towers had classrooms and the fabled marble stairway.

1927: The College Moves to City Line Ave.; The Prep Takes Over North Philly Campus

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.

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 nine Catholic League Football Championships, including 6 under the legendary coach “Ank” Scanlon.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.

1966: 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 Kelly 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.

1968-69: Rebuilding

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. 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 new modern Prep cost $5 million dollars, with $2 million dollars coming from insurance, and $2 million more raised through the generosity of alumni, faculty, and friends. The new building had a pool with a balcony and large windows to brighten it. The new gym floor (now the Kenney-Kelly Hall, home of the Prep Volleyball and Track Teams) was laid on wooden beams supported by thousands of small leaf springs. Today this is the Multi-Purpose Room. The marble stairs from the old building had been buried under the glass and slate foyer to signify the strength of the Prep.