Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

David R. Contosta

Private (Independent) Schools

[caption id="attachment_15708" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of the corner of a city block, with some buildings and trees in the background. Some steps and a light pole are in the foreground and some people are walking on the sidewalk. Germantown Academy, established in 1759 as a nonsectarian school for local boys, moved to Fort Washington in 1965 as middle class families relocated to the suburbs. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The private or independent schools in the Greater Philadelphia area came about mainly to satisfy a need felt by wealthy, white families to educate their children in a cultural and intellectual environment that would prepare them for the responsibilities befitting their gender, race, and class status. Most have existed for at least a century. Although never a large proportion of the region’s educational marketplace, they achieved respect based upon their associations with wealth and power, their academic excellence, and in many cases their religious affiliations. Nevertheless, they struggled with three important issues: access, location, and cost. Finding the right balance among them was a perpetual problem. Since the 1960s, they have addressed this problem by diversifying in many ways—in student body, curricula, and leadership. Ironically, this made them, as a group, more alike than different. But as a result, they lost an important part of their heritage—namely, the desire to preserve strict economic, social, and cultural distinctions.

Most of the region’s private and independent schools are concentrated in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. South Jersey lagged behind because it did not have a critical mass of middle- and high-income residents at the beginning of the twentieth century when circumstances for founding such schools were most propitious. Protestant denominations and Catholic religious orders, both male and female, started many of them. They wanted a “protected education” that would reinforce their teachings. Sequestering students from those of different faiths and from the opposite sex screened out “undesirable” influences and temptations.

[caption id="attachment_30815" align="alignright" width="300"]An aerial photograph of William Penn Charter School. William Penn Charter School, shown in an aerial photograph taken by the Aero Service Corporation c. 1925-26, gained its name from Pennsylvania’s founder. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 1689, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) founded the first school in the region because they associated education with the common good as well as personal salvation. The William Penn Charter School was named for the document establishing it by Pennsylvania proprietor William Penn. In the beginning it taught rich and poor, Quaker and non-Quaker alike. By the twenty-first century, it could claim the honor of being the oldest Friends school in the world, the oldest elementary school in Pennsylvania, and the fifth-oldest elementary school in the United States. After occupying several sites in the old city, it moved in 1925 to the suburbanlike neighborhood of East Falls/Germantown. Its new address and high tuition made it inaccessible to many children. Friends Select School was originally “under the care” of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, a sponsorship later shared with the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. The word “select” in its name indicated that only Quaker children were admitted (or selected); financial considerations brought this practice to an end in 1877.

Abington_Friends_School_LogoEstablished in 1697 in what became Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the Abington Friends School was under the care of the Abington Monthly Meeting. When it opened, it was in a completely rural area. The same could be said for the Westtown School, which was established on a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1799. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which planned the school and brought it to fruition, purposely located it a day’s ride by stagecoach from Philadelphia to protect its students from the city’s corrupting influence. Not surprisingly, it was a boarding school though it eventually accepted day students as its surroundings became more populated.

Most Quakers were clear about the different roles of men and women, but they vacillated for years on the subject of coeducation for children. Friends Select operated separate schools for boys and girls before consolidating them in the 1880s. Abington and Westtown Friends admitted both boys and girls in the beginning, but Abington excluded boys for three decades, a practice that ended only in the 1960s. Westtown kept the sexes apart until the late nineteenth century, when it gradually began to allow boys and girls to attend some classes together and play with one another under strict supervision. By contrast, it did not admit non-Quakers until the 1930s. The school incorporated for the first time in 2010, making it an independent Quaker prep school.

George SchoolThe George School, a Quaker school not affiliated with a Friends meeting, opened in 1893 and has been located in Newtown, Bucks County, ever since. It was named for John M. George, its principal donor, who along with other backers intended it to be a coeducational institution for Hicksite Quakers. Since the Westtown School was affiliated with the Orthodox movement, the George School saw itself as an alternative. Over the last fifty years, a large number of financially successful alumni have built one of the largest endowments of any private school in the greater Philadelphia region, facilitating the admission of low-income students. In 2006-2007 Westtown and George enrolled a much higher proportion of such students than all the other Quaker schools in the region (see chart in the image gallery at right). Nevertheless, both are schools for which family income remains a defining characteristic.

Germantown Friends SchoolSuburbanization affected some Quaker schools more than others. Friends Select School remained in downtown Philadelphia, eventually settling in 1937 on the grand boulevard that became known as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Founded in 1845 by the Germantown Monthly Meeting, Germantown Friends School never left its original location (Coulter Street near Germantown Avenue) even though this neighborhood, which was once almost entirely white and middle class, diversified demographically and deteriorated physically. The school has always been coeducational, but until the early twentieth century,Friends Central School it admitted only Quakers. Friends Central School, on the other hand, started life in 1845 at Fourth and Cherry Streets before moving to the fringe of the developed city (Fifteenth and Race Streets) just before the Civil War. It left Philadelphia altogether in 1925, relocating to Wynnewood, Montgomery County.

Suburbanization caught up with both the George School and Abington Friends. As Bucks County’s population grew in twentieth century, the George School accepted an increasing number of day students. Situated in eastern Montgomery County, Abington Friends expanded its campus, allowing it to stay in the same place under the same management longer than any other school in the nation. All of these Quaker schools have relied on academic rigor and a high college acceptance rate to attract both urban and suburban applicants since at least the middle of the twentieth century.

[caption id="attachment_16218" align="alignright" width="150"]Chart showing enrollment figures in private schools for two school years. Private schools enrollment comparisons for two school years. (Click to enlarge.)[/caption]

Not to be outdone, Quakers in New Jersey founded two schools, Moorestown Friends in 1785 and Haddonfield Friends one year later. The latter accepted both Quakers and non-Quakers from the beginning.  Like most Friends schools, it required students to attend meeting once per week. Founded by the Wilmington Monthly Meeting in 1748, Wilmington Friends, in Wilmington, Delaware, has been an independent day school for decades. Before public schools existed in Delaware, it served a wide array of students, but in recent decades it has concentrated on those aspiring to attend college. It moved to suburban Alapocas in 1937. 

The percentage of Quakers enrolled at Friends schools has diminished over the years in part because, like most private schools in the region, they have increasingly sought to enroll many different kinds of students. At the same time, these schools have always stressed such core Quaker values as equality, simplicity, justice, integrity, and service to others. None of these values is exclusive to Quakers, of course, but sometimes they conflicted with practices associated with a rigorous college preparatory education. Germantown Friends, for example, eliminated academic awards for its students in 2002. As a rule, the Quaker schools have not required try-outs for their athletic teams; anyone who comes forward can participate.

Roman Catholic Schools

Waldron Mercey AcademyThe Roman Catholic Church sponsored many private schools in the region. Even more than the Quakers, the Catholics were committed to religious schools for their children, and some—especially those for girls—practiced single-sex education. In time, they all admitted non-Catholics and some even opted for coeducation, both of which helped make ends meet. Waldron Mercy Academy, for example, brought together two single-sex private schools in Merion, Pennsylvania —Waldron Academy for Boys and Merion Mercy Academy for Girls—in a merger that took place in 1987. That there was some precedent for this combination may be inferred from the history of their mutual predecessor, Mater Misericordiae Academy (1885). It had a young boys department that joined Waldron Academy for Boys when it opened in 1923.

Malvern Preparatory SchoolThree Catholic private schools began as feeders for Roman Catholic colleges. Such an arrangement was not unusual at a time when most small colleges had to prepare students for admission by sponsoring high schools or academies. The oldest is Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Chester County. Operated by the Order of St. Augustine, it began in 1842 on the campus of what was then Villanova College. In 1922, partly in an effort to make an even clearer distinction between the college and the academy, its secondary department moved to Malvern where it served a largely suburban population. Other early feeder schools included St. Joseph’s Preparatory and La Salle College High School. “St. Joe’s Prep” traces its roots to the founding of St. Joseph’s College (chartered in 1851), both under the aLaSalle College High Schooluspices of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The school and college were located initially at (Old) StSt Joseph Preparatory School. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley (between Third and Fourth Streets, and Walnut and Locust Streets). When the college moved to Seventeenth and Stiles Streets, the “Prep” went with it and remained there when the college relocated to City Avenue in 1927. After considering coeducation, the Prep decided to remain all male. La Salle College High School for boys came into being with the establishment of La Salle College in 1858. A century later it moved to a separate suburban campus in the affluent community of Wyndmoor, Montgomery County, while the college remained in the city.

Archmere AcademyLike the Catholic prep schools in Pennsylvania, Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, started as an all-boys school in 1932 but became coeducational in the early 1970s. The Norbertine Brothers founded it as a boarding school but eventually abandoned this policy due to space considerations.

Academy of Notre Dame de NamurCatholic women’s religious orders established several girls’ schools in Philadelphia in the second half of the nineteenth century. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1856, what became the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur educated both sexes at first. Moving west with the city, it opened a convent boarding and day school on fashionable Rittenhouse Square (Nineteenth Street below Walnut) in 1866. It remained there for nearly eighty years (1866-1944) before establishing a second campus in Villanova (Sproul Road) to which it moved its entire operation in 1967. By then, it was a day school for girls only, a policy that the move did Mount Saint Joseph Academynot change. The Sisters of St. Joseph established Mount St. Joseph Academy in 1858 on what later became the campus of Chestnut Hill College. It sought to instill a fear of God in girls about to enter polite society and impress upon them such values as modesty and chastity. It also sought to “recruit” young women for the sisterhood, and for many years some followed this path. But its primary objective soon became college preparation.

[caption id="attachment_15706" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white aerial photograph of a series of school buildings surrounded by fields and sections of trees. Villa Maria Academy occupied several sites before establishing this campus in Frazer, Pennsylvania. The Academy only taught girls here for a few years before moving to another campus and transferring the land to Villa Maria College (now known as Immaculata University). (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Sisters of Mercy established what became Gwynedd Mercy Academy in 1863, and it moved several Gwynedd Mercy Academy High Schooltimes before settling in suburban Gwynedd Valley in 1947, where it shared a site with Gwynedd Mercy College. Nuns belonging to an order known as the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened Villa Maria Academy in 1872. It occupied several sites before moving to the Chester County campus of Immaculata College in 1925. Along the same lines, the Ursuline Sisters established Ursuline Academy for girls in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1893. All these Catholic academies had mandatory religion classes, but they stopped requiring their students to attend Catholic religious services when many were no longer practicing Roman Catholics.

Similar to the Roman Catholic academies, the Academy of the New Church grew up in a religious tradition. Established in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 1876, it was formed to train clergy for the New Church founded by Emanuel Swedenborg. Separate schools for boys and girls began in 1881 and 1884, respectively. Their main purpose was to strengthen their students’ ties to the faith, and for many years all of them belonged to the New Church. The school separated boys and girls in classes that were deemed gender restrictive but mixed them in other subjects. Students not only took religion classes but also attended church services on a regular basis. Among private schools in the region, it enrolled by far the largest proportion of low-income students in 2007 (see chart in the image gallery at right).

Episcopal Schools

Episcopal Academy

[caption id="attachment_30898" align="alignright" width="300"]A 1946 image of the Episcopal Academy's Merion campus. The Episcopal Academy was founded in 1785 by Rt. Rev. William White at Old Christ Church. This 1946 picture shows one of the buildings on its Merion campus. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Men founded the academies associated with the Episcopal Church in greater Philadelphia.  They became more diverse over the years, enrolling girls in most cases as well as some minority and low-income students. William White, the first Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania and the moving force behind the creation of the Episcopal Church in the United States, founded Episcopal Academy in 1785. Located in the city at first, it followed its mostly affluent constituency to suburban Lower Merion in 1921. In 2008, the school pulled up stakes once again, relocating to a larger campus in Newtown Square, Delaware County. Its students were still required to attend chapel, but religious observance in its daily life paled by comparison to academic rigor and college acceptance.

St. Andrew’s School (also Episcopal) in Middletown, Delaware, is a boarding school for college preparatory students with an emphasis on the liberal arts. Founded in 1929 by A. Felix du Pont, a member of Delaware’s immensely wealthy Du Pont family, it was intended to give a superior education to boys of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The school’s large endowment has allowed it to be generous with financial aid for low-income students.

Akiba Hebrew Academy

Barrack Hebrew AcademyAs the anti-Semitism that once characterized Philadelphia culture subsided in the second half of the twentieth century, Jews gained access to many private schools that had previously been off limits to them. But before such barriers came down, Rabbi Joseph Levitsky, among others, established Akiba Hebrew Academy. Opened at the Young Men’s/Young Women’s Hebrew Association on South Broad Street in 1946, it moved to North Philadelphia (Strawberry Mansion) in 1948, Wynnewood six years later, and Merion Station in 1956. The wealth amassed by Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist Leonard Barrack made possible another move, this time to Bryn Mawr in 2008, where it became known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Like many of the Christian preparatory schools in southeastern Pennsylvania, it was mobile but perhaps because it was not founded until after World War II, it was also coeducational from the beginning. 

Nonsectarian Private Schools

Besides the schools with religious ties, nonsectarian private schools have been in the region for many years. Some always were, while others have become college preparatory. A few moved to suburbs during the twentieth century. Like several of their sectarian counterparts—Abington Friends (1966), St Andrews School (1973), Episcopal Academy (1974), and Penn Charter (1980) — they began shifting from single-sex to coeducation in the 1960s and 1970s. They did so not only because of changing attitudes about gender roles, but also because of their dependence on tuition income. In 1962 the average cost to attend one of them was about $1,000 per year, far more than what most families could pay. Although the decision to go coeducational was often divisive, it was no longer advisable or even feasible for them to deny access to half the school-age population. Over the next forty years many increased their enrollment, even as their tuition grew by as much as 2500 percent.

germantown-academyThe oldest nonsectarian private school to survive into the twenty-first century is Germantown Academy. Established in 1759 as the Germantown Union School, it was initially located in the place for which it was named. It moved to a new suburban campus (Fort Washington) in 1965 and became coeducational. The Hill School in Pottstown, Montgomery County, was founded as a boarding school in 1851. Its founder, the Reverend Matthew Meigs, was a Presbyterian minister, but the school was never affiliated with that denomination or any other. Originally known as “The Family Boarding School,” its board of directors renamed it the Hill School—a reference to its elevated site—when academic excellence and college preparation became its primary mission. Originally for boys only, the school was a latecomer to coeducation, admitting girls for the first time in 1998. The Haverford School, on the other hand, chose to remain for boys only. Founded in 1884 as the Haverford College Grammar School, it acted as a feeder for the college for many years. It was under the care of the college’s board of managers until 1916.


Chestnut Hill, an elite residential neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, has been home to two selective private schools since the mid-nineteenth century.  Opened in 1861 as a school for boys, Chestnut Hill

[caption id="attachment_16250" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white photo of library with students and a teacher at Chestnut Hill Academy, c 1956 This library scene at Chestnut Hill Academy, circa 1956, conveys the ambiance at private schools of the era. (Chestnut Hill Academy)[/caption]

Academy was loosely tied to the Episcopal Church and even explored merging with Episcopal Academy. Boarders were expected to attend Sunday services at neighboring St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church until 1934 when the Depression forced the boarding department to close. Thinking that this fashionable neighborhood needed a girls’ “finishing school,” two southern women, Ann Bell Comegys and Jane Erwin Bell, founded Springside School in 1879. After occupying several sites in Chestnut Hill for nearly eighty years, it moved in 1957 to the front lawn of Druim Moir, the former home of multifaceted entrepreneur and real estate developer Henry Howard Houston. By then, its student body had become more diverse thanks to the gradual modification of its neighborhood orientation. Almost half its students now lived outside Chestnut Hill, but these girls often had trouble fitting in. Because the two schools were adjacent, they increasingly entered into joint ventures, beginning in the 1960s, and finally merged completely in 2011, becoming Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Nonsectarian Schools for Girls

Nonsectarian private schools for girls appeared in the Main Line suburbs at the end of the nineteenth century. Educating them meant limiting their exposure to some of the subjects taught to boys, such as science and math. It also meant a curriculum that featured languages, art, music, and the social graces. Florence Baldwin founded the institution that bears her name in 1888 as an unofficial preparatory school for the academically rigorous Bryn Mawr College. One year later the Shipley sisters located their new school across the street from Bryn Mawr College to drive home the point that they, too, intended to prepare young women for college, not just marriage. Both schools accepted boarders as well as day The Agnes Irwin Schoolstudents for many years but eventually closed their boarding departments.  Shipley went one step further, becoming coeducational in 1984. The Agnes Irwin School, which opened its doors in 1869, has never admitted boys. Like so many of its counterparts, it moved out of Philadelphia, settling in Wynnewood in 1933 and then in Rosemont twenty-eight years later. Like Springside eventually did, these three schools downplayed high society, stressing higher education instead.

[caption id="attachment_15792" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a group of high school kids playing football on a field. They are dressed in uniforms and small helmets. There is a small crowd in the background. William Penn Charter School and Germantown Academy began their athletic rivalry with a football game in 1886. By the 1980s, their rivalry took the form an all-day, multisport event referred to as GA-PC Day, which culminates in a football game. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The adoption of coeducation by many of these private schools in the second half of the twentieth century leveraged their commitment to college preparation. It reinforced the idea that academic achievement was their prime consideration. But even those schools that remained single-sex had to have a demanding curriculum. They supplemented languages, science, and mathematics with opportunities for self-expression (e.g. the performing arts) in a robust extra curriculum. Some added community service (aka service learning) because many colleges looked for evidence of this in applicants. Informed by federal legislation (Title IX), others introduced a girls’ sports program, or expanded it, building on their long history of boys’ interscholastic competition. The athletic rivalry between Germantown Academy and Penn Charter dates to 1886. All of these improvements have required constant fund-raising.

Along with coeducation, minority recruitment, and the elimination of religious restrictions in admissions, the focus on college preparation helped to make selective private schools more alike than different. Even those for girls operated by Catholic religious orders were not able to resist this trend. All of these schools survived, despite their high cost, because they had some important advantages.  Their facilities were outstanding and their reputations excellent. Like all private schools, they were less subject to government regulation, freeing them, for example, from state teacher certification requirements and the standardized tests imposed by federal law. They set their own academic standards. Such private schools have been criticized because they do not participate in the grand democratic experiment that public education represents. But they offer to those who can afford them an attractive alternative to the public schools—especially those in Philadelphia, Chester, and Camden—that many regarded as failing.

David R. Contosta is the author of many books and articles on Philadelphia history, such as Philadelphia’s Progressive Orphanage: The Carson Valley School (1997). William W. Cutler III has authored many publications on the history of education in Greater Philadelphia. His most recent is “Outside In and Inside Out: Civic Activism, Helen Oakes and the Philadelphia Public Schools, 1960-1989,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography CXXXVII (July 2013), 301-324.

Higher Education: Private (Religious)

With the exception of Greater Boston, the Philadelphia region has more independent colleges and universities than any other metropolitan area of the United States. These numbers stem in large part from the variety of religious communities in the region, all of whom wanted to enjoy the prestige of having an institution of higher learning. Originally, both Catholic and Quaker institutions wanted to offer a “protected education” that would keep their young people away from “false teachings” and worldly temptations.

The religious connections of colleges and universities have taken several forms. In the case of Protestant institutions, there has commonly been sponsorship or affiliation with a particular denomination; and in the case of Catholic institutions, with a religious order of priests, sisters, or brothers. Over time, Protestant connections have tended to become weaker and then nonexistent, while the Catholic affiliations have remained.

In addition to providing a protected education, Catholic religious orders, both male and female, historically viewed their schools as opportunities for identifying possible candidates to join their communities, much as the early Protestant colleges hoped to attract students to the ministry. The more successful graduates of Catholic colleges, as well as other religiously sponsored institutions of higher learning, might also enhance the reputations of the sponsoring religious groups and provide future financial support. Initially, nearly all these colleges were single-sex institutions, but by the early twenty-first century all but one in the Greater Philadelphia region had become coeducational. Several had also attained university status.

[caption id="attachment_11186" align="alignright" width="575"]A color photograph of the front of St Thomas of Villanova church on a sunny day. There is a stone column with cross on top towards the foreground of the image, and the church is in the far background. Trees line the walkway up to the front of the church. Villanova University's St. Thomas of Villanova Church. (Villanova University)[/caption]

villanovaThe first of the Catholic men’s colleges was Villanova. In part because of strong anti-Catholicism (or nativism) in Philadelphia in the 1840s, a small band of Augustinians founded the college approximately twelve miles west of the city, on a large estate they had purchased the year before in what would come to be known as the Main Line suburbs. They placed the property under the patronage of Saint Thomas of Villanova, a sixteenth-century Spanish Augustinian; who was also Archbishop of Valencia. He had been born near the Spanish village of Villanueva, which in Latin became Villanova. In time, the local railroad station, post office, and residential development around the college also took this name.

Residential Requirement

At first, Villanova’s distance from Philadelphia—or any other centers of population—made living on campus a practical necessity, an arrangement that has persisted, partly out of tradition, to the present day. For several reasons, the college closed twice in the early years, the first time for a year (1845-1846), the second time for eight (1857-1865). During these precarious times, few could have imagined that, in 1953, Villanova would achieve university status, or that in 1968, after more than a century as an all-male college, it would open its academic programs to both men and women, becoming the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the area to do so.


[caption id="attachment_11187" align="alignleft" width="300"]An color photograph of the front of a stone building. The stone is various shades of brown, sandstone, and grey. There is a walkway leading to the front door of the building. The building has a large tower in the back of the building, and spiral columns on the corners of the peaked roof.  Barbelin Hall, Saint Joseph's University. (D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Nine years after Villanova opened its doors, Jesuits in Philadelphia established Saint Joseph’s College on their property at Old St. Joseph’s Church, located in Willings Alley between Third and Fourth Streets, and Walnut and Locust Streets. In 1856, the college moved to a building at Juniper and Filbert Streets but had to sell it three years later because of heavy debt. The college moved back to Willings Alley, but it could not attract enough students to stay afloat and closed about 1870. It reopened in 1889 at Seventeenth and Stiles Street, next to the massive, Baroque-style Church of the Gesu. The college moved to its fourth and current site, at Fifty-Fourth Street and City Avenue, in 1927. Located at the boundary between Philadelphia and the Main Line suburbs, Saint Joseph’s had no residence halls at first and remained entirely a commuter school for several decades. Saint Joseph’s became a coeducational institution in 1970 and achieved university status in 1978.

la_salle_logoThe third Catholic men’s college to be founded was La Salle, chartered in 1863 by the Christian Brothers and named for the founder of their order, St. John Baptiste de La Salle. The first classes met at St. Michael’s parish school at 1421 Second Street. In 1867, the college purchased the same building at Juniper and Filbert Streets that Saint Joseph’s had been forced to sell. La Salle’s happier experience at the site probably owed something to the return of peace and prosperity following the Civil War, but its success where Saint Joseph’s had failed must have embarrassed the Jesuits.  Because of overcrowding, in 1886 La Salle moved to a new campus at Broad and Stiles Streets, only four blocks east of the site where the Jesuits were planning to open Saint Joseph’s College. The Christian Brothers worried about the proximity but went ahead after considerable debate. In 1930, La Salle built a new campus on the eastern edge of the Germantown section of Philadelphia at Twentieth Street and Olney Avenue, in a largely working-class neighborhood. La Salle admitted women in 1970 and in 1984 became a university.

Although there was no need for a third Catholic college in or around Philadelphia, the sponsoring Catholic orders all worried that failing to start their own college would give rival orders an advantage in identifying and recruiting members. At a time when neither national nor state authorities exercised much control over higher education, almost any would-be college founders could obtain a charter of incorporation from their state legislatures. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that of the forty Catholic colleges founded in the United States before 1850, only ten still existed a century later. For a few precarious years it looked as if both Villanova and Saint Joseph’s would be among the casualties.

The Catholic Mandate

[caption id="attachment_11247" align="alignright" width="300"]St. Joseph Hall, with its six-story Greco-Roman rotunda and French Gothic exterior, is the oldest and most iconic building on the campus of Chestnut Hill College.  The school was founded in 1924 as Mount Saint Joseph College by the Sisters of Saint Joseph and renamed in 1938. For most of its history it was an all-women's college, but in fall 2003 men were admitted to the traditional-age, full-time undergraduate program, marking the end of the 78-year-old College for Women. (Chestnut Hill College St. Joseph Hall, oldest building at Chestnut Hill College. (Chestnut Hill College)[/caption]

Catholic authorities in Philadelphia strongly discouraged and then forbade their youth attending non-Catholic colleges and universities. In 1927, then Cardinal Dennis Dougherty (1865-1951) wrote, “If a parish school be necessary in the lower grades, it is still more necessary in the higher; because it is in the higher grades that history, literature, and the experimental sciences are taught in connection with which theories are advanced in non-Catholic universities, colleges, and high schools . . . that are dangerous to Religion.” Dougherty’s successor, Cardinal John O’Hara, made the ban official. Throughout their episcopates, Catholic high schools and academies routinely refused to send students’ transcripts to non- Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Immaculata LogoRequiring attendance at Catholic institutions was clearly a boon to Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, and La Salle. At the same time, the archdiocese, along with the church as a whole, firmly opposed coeducation. This stance meant that Catholic women had to attend single-sex institutions. To meet the need, three now “historic” Chestnut Hill College logoCatholic women’s colleges—Immaculata College, Rosemont College, and Chestnut Hill College—were  founded within three years of one another in the 1920s, a time when college enrollments of women were rising all over the country. The three women’s colleges flourished for the next half century, in no small measure because of the archdiocese’s insistence on women attending single-sex Catholic institutions. In the second half of the twentieth century, women’s religious orders also Rosemont Logoopened Gwynedd Mercy College, Holy Family College, Neumann College, and Cabrini College.  Catholic women’s colleges provided an education that was thought to be doubly sheltered, as women were protected from ideas that might undermine their faith, at the same time as their moral virtue was being protected from temptations resulting from coeducation.

Nevertheless, Catholic colleges and universities followed the wave of coeducation in the United States. The change began at Villanova, where students insisted on it as part of other reforms in line with the demands for gender and racial equality in the 1960s. Once Villanova admitted women to all its programs in 1968, Saint Joseph’s and La Salle had to follow suit or risk declining enrollments. But because the perception persisted that Catholic women were better served socially and academically by single-sex institutions, the Catholic women’s colleges in the region—with the exception of Cabrini, which went coed in 1970— waited another generation to admit men.

In addition to the Catholic institutions, the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers) founded two colleges, Haverford and Swarthmore, and was very influential in the founding of Bryn Mawr College. Swarthmore and Haverford, the earliest of the three, were relative late-comers among Protestant colleges, in part because Quakers, with no need for clergy, did not have to establish colleges to attract and educate men for the ministry.

Quaker Split

haverfordHaverford College emerged from a crisis in 1827 when the Religious Society of Friends split between the Orthodox and Hicksite branches. The Orthodox Quakers, who were generally wealthier and more urbane than the more agrarian and poorer Hicksites, wanted to bring their society into the mainstream of American Protestantism. One way to do that was to found a college for “an enlarged and liberal system of instruction in the Society of Friends.” Wealthy Orthodox Quakers from both Philadelphia and New York City subscribed funds to found what became Haverford College, which opened in 1833, in Haverford Township about ten miles west of Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_11184" align="alignright" width="300"]A color Photograph of the front of a three-story brick building in the evening. It is a long buildings with windows spaced evenly on the front of the building. There is a small tower at the top center of the building. Some trees and grass cover the area in front of the building. Founders Hall, built by Orthodox Quakers for Haverford College in 1833. (D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Much like the early Catholic colleges in the region, Haverford sought to provide a “guarded education,” with, at first, all students and faculty belonging to the Quaker religion, “so as not to endanger their religious principles or alienate them from the early attachments.” Cardinal Dougherty, who later insisted on a guarded education for the members of his flock, could not have said it better. By the twenty-first century, the great majority of students and faculty at Haverford were not Quaker, and there was no attempt to restrict inquiry to Quaker views of the world, though Quaker social principles continued to influence the institution. In 1980, Haverford admitted women to all its programs for the first time.

swarthmore_logo-grayNot to be outdone, the Hicksite Quakers founded Swarthmore College in 1864, locating it in Delaware County, eleven miles southwest of Philadelphia. The site conformed to their desire to situate the college in a “rural district with convenient access to the city of Philadelphia, where the beauty and simplicity of our Christian profession” could be blended into the atmosphere. The college was named for Swarthmore Hall, the home in England of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. Swarthmore’s founders engaged actively in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements; and Swarthmore, unlike Haverford, admitted both men and women from the beginning. Again, in contrast to Haverford in its early years, Swarthmore did not restrict enrollment to Quakers. For several decades Swarthmore remained a small and relatively undistinguished college. This situation changed when Frank Aydelotte (1880-1956) became the college’s first non-Quaker president in 1920. He attracted one of the best college faculties in the nation and made Swarthmore a top-flight liberal arts college.

Bryn Mawr's Leap Forward 

brynmawrBryn Mawr College, which opened in 1885, originally was conceived as a “female Haverford” by its board of trustees, most of whom were Quakers. M. Carey Thomas (1857-1935), Bryn Mawr’s second president, grew up as a Quaker, but she insisted that Bryn Mawr had to identify with contemporary life and thought, rather than with restrictive Quaker traditions, if it were to offer women an education equivalent to that offered by the best all-male colleges. She hired men as well as women to the faculty and built an English-style quadrangle campus complete with sumptuous Gothic Revival buildings. She also loved theater and pageantry, and by 1900 Bryn Mawr was well known for its elaborate Elizabethan May Day festivals, which were about as far removed from the simplicities of Quakerism as one could imagine. By the twenty-first century, Bryn Mawr was the only private college in the area that maintained its single-sex status, but it entered into an agreement with Haverford and Swarthmore, both coeducational institutions, to allow students to take courses at any of the three colleges.

Arcadia-logo-3.5Other Protestant denominations also opened colleges in the Philadelphia region beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. What became Arcadia University was originally a women’s college, established under Methodist Church auspices in 1853 as a “female seminary” in Beaver County, located in extreme western Pennsylvania. It became a coeducational college in 1876, but returned to being an all-women’s college in 1907. Financial difficulties caused the college to relocate in 1925 to the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown, where it merged with the Beechwood School, a preparatory school and junior college. With the move, it severed connections with the Methodist Church, but soon after relocating to Jenkintown it affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. In 1927, the college purchased a former estate of William Welsh Harrison, known as “Gray Towers,” in nearby Glenside and operated on both sites until 1962, when it shifted all its programs to the Glenside campus. In 1973, at a time of falling enrollment, the college returned to being a coeducational institution. In 2000, Beaver College became Arcadia University. Its large graduate programs together with the negative connotations of the word "beaver," which were depressing undergraduate inquiries and enrollment, moved the trustees to change the school’s name and seek university status.

ursinusIn 1869 the German Reformed Church (later the United Church of Christ) opened Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., approximately twenty-five miles northwest of the center of Philadelphia. The founders envisioned a college where “young men could be liberally educated under the benign influences of Christianity,” a gentle way of advocating a “protected education” for members of their faith. In 1881, the college admitted women, making it the second private college in the area, after Swarthmore, to embrace coeducation. The name Ursinus is Latin for bear (in German Baer), and comes from the sixteenth-century religious reformer Zacharias Baer, who Latinized his name to Ursinus, a not-unusual practice among German scholars at the time.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, many institutions including the Quaker colleges, Ursinus College, and Arcadia University had severed any official ties with religious denominations.  The only colleges and universities to maintain religious affiliations were those founded by Catholic orders. But sustaining a Catholic identity in the face of higher education’s preference for empiricism and academic freedom posed a serious challenge that the Vatican tried to address in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church, 1990), an Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities. It accepted the concept of academic freedom, but only so long as it was exercised “with a concern for the ethical and moral implications of both of its methods and discoveries.” Few if any attempts were made to enforce these limitations among Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

[caption id="attachment_11209" align="alignright" width="135"]The bell tower at Saint Joseph's. The bell tower at Saint Joseph's. (D.Groff)[/caption]

The Gothic architecture that can still be found on so many college and university campuses belies the secularism that has become ubiquitous in American higher education.  Even the Catholic schools have had to tone down their sectarianism.  But their commitment to the faith remains unshaken, and the priests and brothers who lead them would not have it any other way.  Religious education classes may not be as common as they once were at these institutions but the chapels, religious murals, and men wearing collars (or in some cases women in habits) on these campuses make it clear that these are institutions rooted in Roman Catholicism.  Nothing like this is still to be found at what were once Protestant campuses. If their religious roots remain on display, it is in the way they conduct themselves as humanistic institutions.


David R. Contosta, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.  He is the author or editor of some twenty books, along with numerous articles and reviews.  These include biographies of Henry Adams, Charles Darwin, and Abraham Lincoln, as well writings about religious institutions, higher education, urban and suburban history, and metropolitan parks. Several titles have focused on Philadelphia and Philadelphians. More recently Contosta has written, coproduced, and appeared in several documentary films.

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