The History of The Roman Catholic High School for Boys

It is hard to believe that in the late 19th century, there wasn’t a single Diocesan high school in Philadelphia, and private Catholic schools were financially beyond the reach of ordinary, working-class families.

In 1890, Archdiocesan parochial schools within the city were educating 21,000 children. Except for the fraction who could afford private school, they had no where to go upon completing eighth grade.

They could, of course, attend public high school, and indeed, at the September 6, 1890 dedication ceremony of Roman Catholic High School, Archbishop Patrick Ryan praised public education, saying, “There ought to be a certain brotherhood of sentiment in all educational institutions. All have one common enemy to fight, and that is ignorance.”

But Ryan went on to say public schools “do not go far enough in the grand mission of educating or calling out the powers of the soul...We cannot have good government without good morality, and we cannot have morality without restraint, and we cannot have this restraint without religion, not religion without religious education.”

The building dedicated that day, declared Judge Thomas R. Elcock, another speaker, was “The best and handsomest of its size and kind in the United States.” It was then, as now, located at Broad and Vine Streets.

The original building, designed by Edwin Forrest Durang, was a three-story structure, 125 by 110 feet, topped by a handsome 120-foot copper-domed tower. Both the Broad Street and Vine Street facades were faced with white marble, while the other exterior walls were of brick.

Interior trim of the steam-heated building was of oak and cypress, while lighting was provided by a combination of gas and electric.

In addition to 20 classrooms, each designed to accommodate between 24 and 42 pupils, the building contained offices, a library suite, mechanical arts workshops, and on the third floor, a hall with a 700-person seating capacity, a gymnasium, and studios with natural lighting for drawing and modeling. External fire towers provided access to lavatory facilities, but no provision was made for a lunchroom. The tower, not entirely ornamental, was fitted with instruments for astronomy classes.

The building lot was purchased for $70,000, and construction costs of $122,000 brought the total cost to $192,000.

The man tapped by Archbishop Ryan and the Cahill board to be the first Rector of the infant school was Rev. Nevin F. Fisher. Fisher was a thirty-seven-year-old professor at St. Charles Seminary and a convert to Catholicism.

As Rector and head of the theology department, Father Fisher was the only cleric on the faculty. The lay faculty he gathered and directed was filled with men of solid teaching credentials and was, perhaps, his greatest accomplishment.

There were 105 boys in that 1890 charter freshman class. The roll was filled with such Celtic names as Dugan, McCarney, Sullivan, O’Callahan, and McGinnis, democratically mingled with an occasional VanThuyne or Englehardt. Many of them were from the blue collar neighborhoods, where a son’s simply entering the doors of a high school was reason for pride.

Only 26 of the 105 would leave Roman clutching a precious and prestigious diploma. The rest fell by the wayside, either through economic hardship or the rigors of the curriculum. In fact, during its first-quarter century, fewer than 25 percent of the students entering Roman managed to graduate.

Because a high school education was not the norm, only the brightest scholars were expected to advance to high school, and the curriculum was challenging. Catholic High, as it was called in an earlier day, initially had a five-year academic course of study, a shortened three-year commercial course, and a manual training program similar to that of a modern vocational school. The five-year academic program proved to be impractical and was almost immediately shortened to four years.

Christian Doctrine, Latin, English, mathematics, general science, history, and manual typing were given to all grades, while gymnastics, German, and commercial studies were either optional or offered only at certain grade levels.

The average class week was 27 hours, but students were expected to spend three additional hours nightly on their studies, according to an early list of rules, and parents were admonished that “no pretext of any kind would be permitted to excuse their sons from this rule.” Regular masses were scheduled, and local pastors were “respectfully requested to notify the Rector concerning any pupil in the high school who does not regularly attend the children’s mass or who neglects the Sacraments of the Church.”

Even though many students were unable to stay the full term, the burgeoning number of applicants soon made it necessary to institute an entrance examination. The 1899 examination, according to a letter sent by Fr. Fisher, was held June 13-17 -- and that wasn’t a choice of days. “Applicants are required to be present at all of the examinations,” he wrote. And the final examination was no easy task either.

But there was more to Roman than textbooks and examinations. Early on, Fr. Fisher introduced a literary magazine, called simply The Journal, which printed articles submitted by faculty and students.

It is through the early issues of The Journal that the pioneer athletes of Catholic High achieved a measure of immortality. Because Roman was the first Diocesan Catholic high school, it had a limited number of schools to compete against in sports. Filling out a schedule was not simple task. The first baseball team was organized in 1893, and the first recorded game was a 14-10 victory over Saint Joseph’s College.

The year 1894 saw the organization of a bicycle club, and a rowing team organized in 1897 won the city interscholastic championship the following year.

Basketball, the sport at which future Cahillites would excel, got off to a very slow start. The lack of adequate practice and a suitable court, according to The Journal, was the cause of Roman’s defeat in its inaugural game, played in 1899 against the Rex Athletic Association. The final score was an unspectacular 18-8.

Roman graduated its first class in 1894, and the first thing the graduates did, naturally, was found an alumni association, with Joseph Smith as president. Probably because the Associated Alumni of Roman Catholic High School limited membership to actual graduates of Roman, it was short-lived. Because most Roman scholars were forced to withdraw before graduation, the school didn’t produce enough graduates annually to sustain a viable association.

The alumni association died of natural causes in 1897, and was replaced in that same year by the Cahill Club, a group named in honor of the benefactor of their alma mater, which admitted to membership anyone who attended the school for any length of time.

John Murney was the first president of the Cahill Club, and the group soon instituted a lively calendar of dances, banquets, athletic events, recitations, and theatrical productions. The club first met at the school, thenin various quarters in the Center City area, before finally establishing itself in a three-story townhouse at 1812 Ludlow Street. The club existed and continues to exist parallel to other alumni groups which rose and fell over the course of the years.

Fr. Fisher’s successor was Msgr. Hugh T. Henry. Msgr. Henry was a distinguished scholar, but he will always be remembered at Roman as the author of “The Purple and Gold,” the school song known and loved by generations of Cahillites. According to Roman lore, the school anthem was composed by the Rector in a single afternoon, written at the request of a delegation of students. It was first publicly sung at a 1908 banquet tendered to the legendary Roman basketball coach, Bill Markward, in honor of another successful season.

In 1915, Catholic High was 25 years old, and with the celebration in mind, a new Alumni Association, distinct from the Cahill Club, was established. The new group had a second purpose -- to obtain for Roman a suitable athletic field, something that was not available on or near the tiny Broad and Vine campus. Influential alumni obtained from the City of Philadelphia the use of a city-owned tract located at 29th and Clearfield Streets, and through money and hard work, this was soon converted into Cahill Field, the area for many a future Roman athletic contest. Cahill Field served as a convenient location for the annual carnival which supplied much of the necessary funds for the upkeep of the field and the athletic program. The Alumni Association held this lease for the next 83 years. On November 1, 1997, under head football coach, Daniel Algeo, Roman played its final varsity contest against the Burrs of West Catholic High School. The final score was 41-0 victory for the Cahillites.

The acquisition of a playing field at such a distance underscored the greatest single drawback of Roman Catholic’s location. The Center City site of the school, which was a real blessing from a cultural and transportation standpoint, made the cost of land acquisition prohibitive, and expansion of the student population virtually impossible.

By 1925, all freshmen and some sophomores were attending class at no less than 13 annexes dispersed variously throughout sections of the city. These annexes were located in parish schools at St. Columbus, Nativity, St. Bonaventure, All Saints, St. Teresa, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter, St. Gabriel, St. Monica, Dt. Francis Xavier, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Visitation, and Most Precious Blood. In all, 740 students were attending classes at Broad and Vine Streets, while another 625 attended at the annexes. Also used was the annex at Broad and Stiles Streets. It was the former site of LaSalle College and before that was the home of the Bouvier family (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy).

To relieve the situation, the Cahill Trustees acquired a property located at 10th and Luzerne Streets in Northeast Philadelphia. But the new Roman Catholic High School was never built. Instead, the property was transferred to the Archdiocese in 1938, and became Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls.

The Great Depression years were hard on the students and faculty at Roman. Many of the students had to drop out of school. For those who stayed, there were hard times in their scholastic days and little prospect for employment upon graduation.

A few days after the 1935 graduation, the 29 lay faculty members were called to a meeting, ostensibly to discuss assignments for the next term. It was a meeting Fr. Leo Burns, then Rector of Roman, dreaded calling.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I will read the names of those of you who will have jobs next year.” He read only ten names. Many of the others openly wept. Most were family men; they had devoted a lifetime to Roman Catholic High School, and now, in the heart of the Depression, they were without employment. When the bell rang for the opening of the fall term, the students found themselves facing a cadre of young priests, mostly freshly ordained.

The wholesale layoff, ordered by Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, was a cost-cutting measure born of desperation. The truth was the Depression had places Philadelphia’s huge Archdiocesan high school system deeply in debt, and Roman, with the only lay faculty in the system, was relatively expensive to operate. The mass layoff alleviated some of the financial pressure.

By the time Fr. John Cartin, a member of the class of 1916, became Rector in 1938, Roman was far less independent than it had been in his student days. Fr. Cartin said, “The Archdiocesan superintendent’s office had taken over more. Textbooks, syllabi, and examinations were made by his office.”

During the Second World War years, seniors were given placement test for the armed forces, and a few did leave school to join, though most of the balance were inducted shortly after graduation. Fr. Cartin later estimated that 1,500 Roman men served in defense of their nation during World War II.

The Roman of the 1950s had a faculty of 41, 38 priests and only three laymen. There 996 students at Broad and Vine, while 127 freshmen were still taught at annexes located at St. Josaphat in Manyunk, St. Peter the Apostle, and St. Michael the Archangel. In order to better accommodate its students, Roman worked to establish a new addition to the school. In 1954, the school opened with a cafeteria for its students as well as two science labs.

In the early morning of July 30, 1959, the revered building at Broad and Vine caught fire, and its distinctive dome was lost forever. Faulty wiring above the ceiling of a second-floor classroom caused the blaze. The destruction by the fire of many of the facilities of Roman Catholic and the closing of the building for repairs left the students and the faculty without a school building. The problem of caring for the freshmen classes was solved by the kind invitation of Msgr. Joseph Cox to use the building and facilities of St. John’s Night School located on 13th Street between Market and Chestnut Streets. All other students were sent to the former Baldwin Public School near St. Monica’s Church at 17th and Ritner Streets. It had been recently purchased by St. Monica’s for its growing parish. The pastor Msgr. Aloyisious P. Farrell, a 1916 graduate of Roman, graciously offered the school to Catholic High for the upperclassmen. The students and faculty remained there until the following May, returning in time for the class of 1960 to graduate from the old school.

During the 1960s, there were a number of renovations, including the updating of the library and the installation of an elevator.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the enrollment of the school began to decline. This problem continued through the early 1980s. Part of the issue was that not everyone appreciated the downtown location. It was in 1981 that the Alumni Association passed a resolution to use its resources to provide for the deficit of the school to ensure that the operation of the school continued at a zero budget base.

Although Roman continued to enjoy the fierce loyalty of those students who did choose to make the trek to Broad and Vince, there simply were fewer boys filling the classrooms and hallways -- and costs increased. Many feeder parishes were taken from Roman and assigned to other Diocesan high schools in Conshohocken and North Philadelphia.

In January 1986, the situation at Roman finally climaxes. Word leaked out that the Archdiocese would close the school at the end of the school term. The primary reasons given were a $440,00 annual deficit and a projected further decline in enrollment, from 555 to 525 the next year.

John Cardinal Krol, then Archbishop of Philadelphia, offered a challenge which showed no lack of imagination. At a February 10, 1986 meeting of the Cahill Trustees, Cardinal Krol presented a proposal. Roman would be permitted to remain open if the alumni could guarantee 250 incoming freshmen and continue to cover the operating deficit. While Archdiocesan-wide enrollment would be permitted, Roman would lose all of its feeder schools.

The dedicated alumni rose to the challenge. Through hard work, salesmanship, and fundraising, enrollment climbed over the next three years -- 676, 700, and 750.

The challenge of 1986, appears to have reinvigorated the Roman Catholic spirit and tradition because great things started happening to this great institution.

In 1990, Roman Catholic High School celebrated its 100th anniversary, highlighted by a spectacular mass and gala.

Also in 1990, Msgr. Francis W. Beach, a graduate of the class of 1967, became the school’s 10th Rector. Msgr. Beach had the qualities that were paramount to lead Roman into the 21st century: a love of the school, faith in his faculty, and a vision for the future.

Msgr. Beach knew that in order to keep Roman viable he must concentrate his efforts on alumni relations, fundraising, and marketing. Therefore, Msgr. Beach became one of the first to petition the Archdiocese to convert the governance of the school to a President/Principal model. In 1993, as a result, Msgr. Beach was made the school’s first President, retaining the title of Rector.

1993 also saw the formation of Roman Catholic High School’s Board of Advisors. This group of caring individuals was designed to assist and guide the school in its efforts to be a leader in Catholic education well into the 21st century. The entire Board of Advisors meets four times a year. Through the leadership of the Board of Advisors and the Alumni Association, Roman was poised to begin its first major capital campaign called the Renaissance at Roman.

The highlight of the Renaissance at Roman campaign came in 1996 when the school finally received permission form the Archdiocese to build a $3.5 million expansion to the school, which was funded by the many alumni, friends, and foundations who recognized the historical importance of sustaining a Catholic high school presence in Center City. This wing, which is known as Renaissance Hall houses an expansion of the cafeteria, a new discipline office, one classroom, and an information center which houses the library, computer lab, and television studio. Also during this project, the labs in the 1954 wing were completely gutted and remodeled with new technology, furniture, and equipment.

Under the direction of Fr. Paul Brandt, Roman continued its growth. With the lease about to expire on Cahill Field, a new athletic facility was needed. In 1998, through the help of some very dedicated individuals, Roman was able to secure a 25-year lease with Fairmount Park and establish River Field next to the Philadelphia Art Museum. As part of the lease, Roman build a new field house on the property. 

In the fall of 2002, Mr. Robert O’Neill was appointed by the Archdiocese as the first lay principal in the history of the school.

In 2005, Fr. Brandt initiated the second capital campaign in the school’s history. The Legacy Campaign raised funds for the purchase and renovation of the Philadelphia City Morgue. This property located around the corner from Ro- 106 man on 13th Street was redesigned to house three classrooms, the development offices, a weight room, the trainer’s room, the athletic director’s office, and a wrestling room. When it opened in the fall of 2006, the facility was named the McSherry Annex. The name honored James McSherry of the class of 1940, who donated more money to Roman than any other alumnus in the history of the school. The word annex was chosen to pay tribute to Roman’s history when it had annexes all over the city.

In 2006, Fr. Joseph Bongard, class of 1977, became the school’s 12th Rector. Fr. Bongard completed the Legacy Campaign begun by his predecessor and then turned his attention to the needs of the historic original building. Fr. Bongard renovated All Saints Chapel, supplying it and several other portions of the school with beautiful stained-glass windows. Improving the largest room in the school was another goal of Fr. Bongard as he had the gym restored and air conditioned.

In 2010, Fr. Bongard was named Vice-Rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and he was replaced by Fr. John Flanagan.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, every incoming freshman began using an Apple iPad. Through the vision of a team of administrators and faculty, Roman truly became a 21st century school where technology permeates every aspect of the students’ lives.

In July, 2014, Fr. Joseph Bongard was reassigned to Roman Catholic as its 14th Rector, the first person to ever serve as Rector on two separate occasions.

In 2015, Roman Catholic High School celebrated its 125th anniversary. The highlight of this celebration was the recognizing of its 125 Persons of Distinction. At a gala event, the school recognized those individuals who through their actions have brought honor to the school. The first Archdiocesan high school in the United States can certainly still claim its title as the Flagship of Archdiocesan High Schools.

In August of 2015, Mrs. Patricia Sticco was named principal of the school. In so doing, Mrs. Sticco became the first woman to serve as principal of Roman.

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