Saint Francis Xavier School is one of the oldest continually operated Catholic parish schools in the Western Hemisphere. The school was founded in 1845 by Reverend Patrick Rafferty,
pastor of Saint Francis Xavier parish from 1842 until his death in 1863. Father Rafferty, an immigrant from Ireland, originally housed the school in the basement of the first Saint Francis Xavier Church building
at 25th and Biddle Streets. That location
is not far from the site of the great front steps of today’s Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The SFX parish history relates that at its beginning, Saint Francis Xavier school had only one teacher, a Mr. Connelly who had previously been a schoolmaster in Ireland. In its early days, the school’s mission involved the education of adults as well as children, but by the late 1850s that situation was changing steadily: the student body had risen to nearly 100 children by 1854, and adult education was becoming an ever smaller part of the school’s mission.
Father Rafferty entered eternal life in March of 1863. In 1864, Pastor Rafferty was succeeded in that office by Reverend James Maginn,
another Irish immigrant.
Father Maginn recognized that the steadily increasing size of the school’s student body (enrollment had risen to 150 in the early 1860s) demonstrated that the basement of the church was no longer an acceptable location to house and operate Saint Francis Xavier School. Accordingly, he had erected a three story brick school building at the Southwest corner of 24th and Green Streets. This building, referred to in parish history as the old school, opened in the late 1860s.
At about the time of the Green Street school’s opening, Father Maginn secured and began renovating a building adjacent to the school
which would serve as a convent for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). The IHM Sisters accepted responsibility for the administration of the school in 1869. Until that time, Saint Francis Xavier School was served by a completely lay faculty. The Sisters occupied the renovated convent in July of 1872.
In the years after the Green Street school was constructed, the size of the student-body continued to grow. In the early 1900s an addition to the school on Green Street was constructed, but as time went on it became obvious that a new, larger school was the only true solution to the issue of needed space.
The task of constructing a new Saint Francis Xavier School was undertaken by Pastor Reverend Joseph O’Keefe,
a native Philadelphian. The new, and present, Saint Francis Xavier School
opened in 1923 at 24th & Wallace Streets.
The Green Street school and the convent beside it were demolished to provide space for a new convent building
which was dedicated and occupied by The IHM Sisters in 1949.
The student body of Saint Francis Xavier School continued to grow, peaking at 1,300 students during the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1960s, due to demographic changes, the population of parish Catholic schools throughout the city began to decline. By the early 1990s the student-body at Saint Francis Xavier’s had become constant at between 240 and 250 children.
Concurrent with the decline in enrollment was a decline in the number of women choosing to enter the IHM. Because of that decline, The IHM Sisters could not administer and staff all of the schools to which they had committed themselves for so many years. The IHM had little choice but to reconsider where to assign the members of their community. In the autumn of 2002, Sister Rose De Carlo IHM, the then Superior General, announced that The IHM Sisters would be leaving Saint Francis Xavier at the conclusion of the school year. On May 18, 2003, a special Mass of farewell was celebrated and a reception was held in the school hall. An era which had lasted 133 years had come to conclusion.
By the spring of 2003, a group of lay persons assembled to form the Saint Francis Xavier School Advisory Board. The Advisory Board, after conducting several interviews during the summer, selected Ms. Dolores Butler as the school’s new principal. Ms. Butler, who had been involved in Catholic Education for 32 years, became the first lay person to serve as SFX principal in 134 years.
The School Advisory Board now consists of persons who are roughly half members of the parish and half supportive Catholic lay people from outside the parish. The lay advisory board provides leadership for the school whose student population is very diverse and consists of students most of whom are not from the parish.