St. Joseph's Preparatory School: Educating Philadelphia's young men since 1851
1733 W Girard Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130
The Jesuits opened St. Joseph’s Preparatory School on September 15, 1851 with a class of 95 young men. Through the next 165 years, “the Prep” has remained a cornerstone of education in Philadelphia. St. Joseph’s Prep’s first home was in Willing’s Alley between 3rd and 4th Street. Despite a brief move to Juniper and Filbert Streets, the institution continued at this address until the purchase of a large parcel of land on November 20, 1866. That parcel lay between 17th and 18th and from Thompson Street to Stiles Street, with the school’s location being 17th and Girard. The structures built have made up St. Joseph’s Prep for more than 100 years. A part of this construction was the Church of the Gesu, formally opened on December 6, 1868. The Gesu is still an integral piece of the Prep as it is the home of religious life for the school and houses every student mass.
The school was the brainchild of Jesuits from the Philadelphia region who believed that there was a significant need for Catholic education for high school to college-age males. The Jesuits appointed Rev. Felix J. Barbelin, S.J. as the school’s first president and Rev. J. Burchard Villiger, S.J. as the school’s first principal. The pair was instrumental in the creation of the current campus and developed nine regulations for the students of the Prep, some of which were: “students should be polite as that is the surest sign of a gentleman,” “should diligently observe all customs prescribed by their teacher,” “go directly home and avoid playing in the neighborhood.” They hoped that these regulations would keep students from lives of crime and indulgence. These customs identified St. Joe’s Prep students as thoughtful, quiet pupils of the Philadelphia area.
Despite the Prep being a Roman Catholic establishment, the school chose to open itself to students of all religious beliefs. In his history of St. Joseph’s Prep, James Gormley explains, “The Catholic religion was taught to the students but boys of other religions were admitted to the college and would not be disturbed in their religious beliefs.” This continues to be an important principle of the school, as diversity is recognized and cherished.
Throughout the early 1900’s, the Prep progressed and multiplied in influence and attendance. The administration identified the school’s signature colors, Crimson and Grey, in 1901 and these colors remain today. New programs were instituted, including The Cape and Sword Drama Club and the school’s literary journal, The Chronicle. The school’s sports programs rose in prominence during this period, as well, especially football. St. Joe’s Prep is still a dominant figure among the Catholic League alongside its eternal rival, LaSalle College High School.
The Prep grew steadily until January 30, 1966, when a fire threatened to burn all of its progress to the ground. Beginning at 5:30 a.m. that day, an enormous fire started. It destroyed the Stiles Street Building and the 17th Street Building. This event threatened the very core of the Prep and discussions began for possible relocation. Instead, St. Joseph’s Prep chose to rebuild on this location because it “would maintain the social mix, serve the upwardly-mobile, and promote social awareness” and cater to the needs of the local community. On May 29, 1967, the Jesuits broke ground for a new building on Stiles Street. The building cost $5 million, with $2 million in financing from the insurance for the old building, $2 million from a fund-raising campaign led by the students and parents of the school, and finally, a $1 million loan from the bank. The Prep remains in this location today and continues to aid the local community through daily service projects and larger scale endeavors, such as a Thanksgiving and Christmas food drive.
The school was not finished with reconstruction, however, as the administration created plans to rebuild the 17th Street building that had avoided the fire. Finished in 2009, and appropriately named Villiger Hall after the first principal of the school, the newest building on the campus of St. Joe’s Prep is a testament to its growth over the past 50 years.
While much of the Prep has modernized (tuition was $18.50 for a yearly education in 1851, now tuition is $22,300), the core values instituted by the Jesuits in 1851 endure. However, St. Joseph’s Prep is an unchanged institution in many respects, with its extra attention paid to the development of young men into “Men for Others” – part of the school’s philosophy. It continues to practice its traditions of academic and religious excellence along with improving relations with its local community. As the Prep enters its next 160 years, it is certain that the school will continue to grow as Philadelphia grows and to educate its precocious youth in the shadow of Girard Avenue.