Historic Sites

Risen from the Ashes: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and the Gesu Church, Part 2

As the Gesu parish flourished, so did St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. By 1927, the University moved from North Philadelphia to a new campus on City Line Avenue, giving the secondary school much more space. It was also in the 1920s that the school became known as “The Prep” and its students as “Preppers.” Because of its high academic standards, easy access to public transportation, and relatively low tuition, it attracted students from all over Philadelphia and its suburbs. Some hailed from as far away as Trenton, Phoenixville, and Cape May. Some of their fathers were doctors and lawyers; others were factory workers and shop owners. Most parents were upwardly-mobile and very involved in their children’s education. Above all, the school was a Philadelphia melting pot. As Preppers, students could form friendships outside of their respective economic classes and neighborhoods.

Old St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University,
c.1910. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

The Marble Staircase, the old St. Joseph’s
Preparatory Building, c. 1925, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

According to a school history, the Jesuits impressed upon their charges that they should be “polite, as that is the surest sign of a gentleman and therefore they should diligently observe all the little customs prescribed by their teachers.” The students were also told to be “friendly with their peers and avoid quarreling, fighting, and language of low-breeding.” iii

Classes began at 9am and continued until 2:30pm. Students then participated in extracurricular activities and sports, with football being the most popular. Coach Frank Caton of the Fairmount Rowing Club started the crew team in the late 1920s. A dramatic club put on Shakespeare plays, and those interested in debate participated in the Barbelin Society — talented Jesuits advised both groups.iv

Sandy MacMurtrie, class of 1945, commuted to The Prep from his family’s home at 912 S. 49th Street. His family, parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Church on Baltimore Avenue, sent three sons to the Prep. Sandy and a few of his West Philadelphia classmates would catch the Number 70 trolley to Girard Avenue, and then hop the Number 15 to 17th Street. Mass would be said at 8am every day, with prayers offered to the alumni in the service — including Sandy’s brother Francis who was tragically killed in the Pacific.

The situation in Europe cast a shadow over school life, but the students still pulled old fashioned hijinks. In September 1941, The Prep scored a major football victory over South Catholic High School. The following morning, students held a celebratory pep rally in the auditorium. No one knows who walked out the door first, but scores of Preppers (including MacMurtrie) paraded down Broad Street, cheering and singing at the top of their lungs. The headmaster met the students at Rayburn Plaza and ordered them to turn around. To no avail. By the time the students reached South Catholic at 8th and Christian, the Prep’s headmaster had sent several squad cars there to meet them. The administration punished the offending students accordingly: for the next 2 days after school, they had to walk in circles around the schoolyard for 3 hours.v

* * * *

Within days of the fire of 1966, the Prep was back in business. Classes met in the one surviving building on Thompson Street. In spite of crowded and primitive conditions, enrollment did not decline. Most importantly, the administration decided the school would remain in North Philadelphia.

For teacher Gus Kueny Jr. ‘53, the decision to stay was a reaffirmation of the school’s social mission. “So many businesses and schools are closing up and leaving the city,” Kueny said at the time. “What could we accomplish by moving out? Kids come here from every neighborhood, from every suburb. For kids like this, just coming into this neighborhood shows them something they wouldn’t see out in the suburbs. It’s part of their education.” vi

The new school building would be built just south of the Church of the Gesu, on land acquired from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Ground was broken on May 29, 1967, and Cardinal John Krol consecrated the modern, $4.5 million structure a year and a half later.vii

Exterior of the old St. Joseph’s Preparatory Building
and Church of the Gesu, c. 1960, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

Interior of Church of the Gesu, photograph by
Steven B. Ujifusa.

In the 1990s, due to falling parish membership, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deactivated the Church of the Gesu as a parish. But St. Joseph’s Preparatory stepped in to save Father Villiger’s dream church. This remarkable structure now serves as the school’s chapel, hosting student masses several times a year. Its attached independent school, the Gesu School, is a model for inner city elementary education.

Today, The Prep has about 800 students, and continues to draw in students from all over the Philadelphia area. Despite its urban location, the Prep has found that more and more of its students are from the suburbs. Naturally, this has led to some tensions with the surrounding neighborhood, especially as the student body became more affluent. At the same time, the Prep opportunities for community service not possible in a suburban location, such as tutoring low-income elementary students at the Gesu School.

“We’ve been struggling to keep a base in the city,” said current headmaster Father George Bur S.J., ’59. “When I was there as a student, between 60 and 70 percent the students were from the city, now it’s only about 20 percent, and we are working to reach out to the Latino and African-American communities.” viii

A recent alumnus, Richard Pagano ’98, recently mused on the meaning of the school’s motto “Men for Others”: “Community service,” he said, “and the idea of commitment to aiding and providing for not only those less fortunate, but the community as a whole, is such a big part of that school. The school imbues in you a desire to succeed, to achieve, to make a name for yourself, and not to be complacent…the school’s location, and Jesuit ideals, cannot be discounted for doing that.”

Note: Special thanks to Bill Avington, Bill Conners, Father George Bur S.J., James Hill Jr., Gus Keuny, Sandy MacMurtrie, and Richard Pagano for their invaluable assistance.


[iii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, p.12. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[iv] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.46, 65, 105.

[v] Interview with Sandy MacMurtrie, August 27, 2010.

[vi] James Smart, “In Our Town: A Sentimental Alumnus Busy Rebuilding the Prep,” The Evening Bulletin, November 8, 1968. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[vii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.155-156. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[viii] Interview with Father George Bur, S.J, August 27, 2010.