Risen from the Ashes: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and the Gesu Church, Part 1


Old St. Joseph’s Preparatory School on fire,
January 30, 1966. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School.
On the early morning of January 30, 1966, a watchman spotted a fire smoldering in the basement of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. He alerted Brother Stanley Leikus, S.J., who ran onto Stiles Street at 5:30am and pulled the firebox. But it was too late. The blaze ripped through the century-old Second Empire style main structure, consuming classrooms, libraries, and the white marble staircase at the school entrance.
Within an hour, eight fire companies had arrived at St. Joseph’s Preparatory, but high winds whipped the flames into a ferocious firestorm. It was a bone-chilling ten degrees, and giant sheets of ice from the fire hoses encrusted the blazing building’s façade.

At the neighboring Gesu Church, Jesuit brothers gathered up relics and vestments and moved them to safety. With smoking billowing around him, Headmaster Joseph Ayd S.J. shut the fire doors separating the burning school and the Gesu Church and then fled for his life.


After the fire. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School, January 30, 1966.

After the fire. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School, January 30, 1966.

At 8:00am, the Stiles Street building of St. Joseph’s Preparatory collapsed with a great roar, and a shower of sparks rained down upon the Gesu Church. If the Gesu’s wooden structure caught fire, the flames would almost certainly spread to surrounding houses.

Finally, at 9:13 am, the fireman had brought the blaze under control. The Gesu Church and its parish school were safe. But St. Joseph’s Preparatory School was a total loss, a blackened, gutted shell of its former self. Its 800 students were homeless, as well as its 40 Jesuit priests.i

There was no question that “The Prep” would rebuild. It was one of the crown jewels of Philadelphia’s Catholic school system, taking in bright boys and giving them opportunities they otherwise would have been denied. As a result, it had a loyal alumni base. But at the time of the fire, North Philadelphia was in severe economic decline, and many wondered if the school would move elsewhere and cater to a more affluent suburban clientele.

* * * *

St. Joseph’s Preparatory is an outgrowth of the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s Church, founded in 1733 by the Society of Jesus and located at 3rd and Walnut. Thanks to William Penn’s “Charter of Privileges,” St. Joseph’s Church was the only place in the British Empire where people could publically celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass. Following American independence, the parish, as well its college preparatory school (founded in 1851), grew by leaps and bounds, thank in large part to an influx of Irish and German immigrants. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the Jesuits were running out of space and needed to move.

In the 1860s, the Jesuits brought in Swiss-born Father J. Burchard Villiger to raise funds to build a new complex for the preparatory school and university. Villiger, educated at Georgetown University, had a genius for networking with the city’s upwardly mobile Roman Catholic elite, most notably the Drexels and Bouviers. In 1866, the Jesuits bought the entire 1700 block of Stiles Street in then-rural North Philadelphia as the site for a Catholic preparatory school and university. Appropriately, it was only a few blocks away from the Bouvier mansion on North Broad Street. Villiger quickly raised the money to build a large Second Empire-style school and university building, which boasted eighteen foot ceilings, a white marble staircase, and mansard roofs.

He then turned his attention to building a parish church, which would also be utilized by the school and university. His model was the home church of the Society of Jesus in Rome: hence, it would be named the Church of the Gesu. In 1878, Archbishop Frederic James Wood gave Villiger permission to start building to a set of plans by architect Edwin Forrest Durang.

Villiger planned on a grand scale: the church would be 115 feet wide and 250 feet deep. Its highest vault would soar 100 feet above the nave’s floor. Villiger purchased five bells for the towers, as well as a set of ecclesiastical paintings by Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera. He also had a passion for collecting relics, to be displayed in reliquaries set in the church’s side chapels.

But even the persuasive Villiger had trouble the raising funds to achieve his vision. Construction of the church took a decade and proceeded fitfully. He hoped to use gleaming marble to adorn the interior of the church. As a fundraising ploy, Villiger had the interiors completed in raw white plaster. According to a history of the church, the savvy Jesuit reasoned that “people would grow tired of it and buy the marbles of which he dreamed.” Ultimately, the white interiors were elaborately painted in a faux-marble finish by Brother Schroen, S.J.


Easter Sunday Mass at the Church of the
Gesu, 1913. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School.

If Villiger couldn’t get his marble trim, he did secure a hefty $72,000 gift (over $1.5 million in today’s money) from the estate of Francis A. Drexel to complete the church, which was dedicated with great pomp in 1882. By the time Villiger died in 1902, critics had hailed the Gesu as one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in the city and a fittingly grand chapel for St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University.ii

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.

References:

[i] “8-Alarm Fire Wrecks St. Joseph’s Prep School,” The Evening Bulletin, January 31, 1966.

[ii] Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938, Church of the Gesu, Privately printed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1938, pp. 14, 15, 30, 32, 111. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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