The Origins Of Catholic Education In America

The history of the IHM is inextricably linked to the history of Catholic Education in the United States. As early as 1598, little more than 100 years after Columbus came to the New World, Catholic clergy were operating schools which included requisite religious training in what is now New Mexico and Florida. In the 19th century, however, particularly in the decades between 1840-1860, there was a phenomenal growth in the number of what we now know as parish schools. This trend was spurred on by the exhortations of the Bishops who met in the Plenary Councils of Baltimore: the first in 1852.

The early Catholic Schools in our country were staffed by lay teachers or members of religious orders founded in Europe whose members migrated here for missionary work. Eventually, distinctively American orders, or communities, were established. Among the earliest of these was the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (IHM).

IHM: The Early Years

The IHM Is Founded

Under the direction of Reverend Louis Gillet, C.S.S.R., on November 10, 1845, three holy women Mother M. Theresa (Maxis), Sister M. Anne (Schall) and Sister M. Celestine (Renauld) took up residence in a log cabin on the banks of the Raisan River at Monroe Michigan. As is written in one history of the IHM “the community developed like the mustard seed used in illustration by our Divine Lord.” It was soon sending Sisters to work in new pastures.


The Sisters Come To Philadelphia

Though they had been in the Diocese of Philadelphia for some time, their first foundation in the City of Philadelphia proper was in 1863 at Saint John the Baptist parish. In 1869 the pastor of Saint Paul’s parish (10th & Christian Streets) acquired a large building which had long been used as a city hall for the southern section of the city. This building was given to the IHM for use as a convent. During that same year the Sisters were asked to care for three schools in parishes where no convents existed. One of those three was Saint Francis Xavier.


The Origins Of St. Francis Xavier School: The Arrival Of The IHM

Reverend Patrick Rafferty,

Reverend Patrick Rafferty
Reverend Patrick Rafferty

an Irish immigrant, was pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish from 1842 – 1863. He founded our school in 1845; it’s first teacher was a Mister Connelly, a former schoolmaster in Ireland. The school was located in the basement of the old SFX Church 

the old St. Francis Xavier Church
the old St. Francis Xavier Church

located at 25th & Biddle Streets near today’s Philadelphia Museum of Art. By the 1860’s enrollment exceeded 100 students, and in 1869, the IHM Sisters accepted responsibility for the operation of the rapidly growing school.


The IHM At St. Francis Xavier School: The Early Years

During their first three years at SFX the IHM Sisters journeyed daily from their home at Saint Paul’s to SFX. Most, if not all, of that trip was made afoot. One must remember those were still horse-car days; the first electric streetcars on Catherine and Bainbridge Streets only began operation in December 1892.

In July of 1872, the IHM Sisters occupied a dwelling at 2330 Green Street which had been purchased for them by then Pastor, Reverend James Maginn. They would later move to 2322 and 2324 Green Street 

convent adjacent to old school building
convent adjacent to old school building

as their former home was demolished to make way for the first Saint Francis Xavier School Building. The two Green Street houses would be used as the SFX Convent until 1948.

The SFX School building at 24th and Green Streets, which is referred to in SFX Parish history as “the old school”, was dedicated in 1883, while Reverend Michael J. Gleeson 

Reverent Michael Gleeson
Reverent Michael Gleeson

was pastor. An addition was added to the “old school” building in 1903.


An IHM Convent Is Constructed

As enrollment at SFX continued to grow, it became necessary to erect the present SFX School at 24th & Wallace Streets.

the new St. Francis Xavier School
the new St. Francis Xavier School

This large project was overseen by the Pastor, Reverend Joseph F. O’Keefe;

Pastor Reverend Joseph O'Keefe
Pastor Reverend Joseph O’Keefe

it opened officially in 1923.

Because of the increased enrollment, still more Sisters were needed to staff the school’s faculty. Many of those Sisters, of necessity, took sleeping quarters on the third floor of the now empty old school building at 24th and Green Streets. It was obvious that a new housing solution for the IHM Sisters was necessary.

In 1948, then SFX Pastor, Reverend Dennis A. Coughlin,

Father Dennis A. Coughlan
Father Dennis A. Coughlin

rented a house for the sisters at 1826 Rittenhouse Square. (This house was once home to the sister of Saint Katherine Drexel.) Father Coughlin traveled to the Rittenhouse address daily to celebrate Holy Mass; the IHM Sisters traveled to and from our school each day by taxicab. Once,when during a city transit strike taxis were difficult to come by, several men of the parish used their own autos to organize a “parish transit system” to transport the Sisters to and from the school each day. While the Sisters lived on Rittenhouse Square and generally traveled to school by taxi their quality of life was still less than luxurious, since due to a lack of space in the school they regularly took their lunch in the basement of the building. Since the old Green Street school and the two residences once used by the IHM Sisters were now empty, Father Coughlin had them demolished and the modern convent 

the new convent building
the new convent building

was constructed on the site in 1948. It was dedicated and occupied by our IHM Sisters that same year.

And so things continued for the next several decades. During the late 1940’s and 1950’s enrollment at SFX exceeded 1,300 children and all of the IHM Sisters who taught them so faithfully lived in the SFX Convent at 24th and Green Streets.

As time went on however, demographic changes were occurring throughout the city; as the families who traditionally sent their children to parish schools migrated to the suburbs, Catholic schools, and eventually even parishes, began to close. Concurrent with that development was a gradual decline in the number of women choosing to enter the IHM Community. As the number of sisters available for teaching assignments declined, most of their former teaching positions were taken over by lay teachers; the IHM still maintained administrative responsibility for most of the schools they had formerly staffed and operated. By the mid-1990s the IHM Sisters began to withdraw from some of the administrative functions they had previously performed in order to concentrate their talents and resources on a manageable number of areas. In 2003 the IHM regretfully announced that the community had no choice but to relinquish their responsibility for the administration of Saint Francis Xavier School . Their announcement was met with great sadness throughout the parish. In the summer of 2003, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary 

the last three IHM Sisters to serve as Principal of SFX, left to right: Sr. Maryanne Wintdrberg 1992 - 1998, Sr. Pasquellina Marie Scannapieco 1986 - 1992, Sr. Stephen Frances Meyer 1998 - 2003
the last three IHM Sisters to serve as Principal of SFX, left to right: Sr. Maryanne Wintdrberg 1992 – 1998, Sr. Pasquellina Marie Scannapieco 1986 – 1992, Sr. Stephen Frances Meyer 1998 – 2003

departed from the Convent on Green Street; they will always remain in the fond memories of the people of the Saint Francis Xavier Church/The Oratory/Fairmount Community.