The City is Our Campus
There are many things that set a St. Joseph’s Prep apart from other high schools. It is the only high school in the Delaware Valley based on the Jesuit educational model. It is the oldest Catholic high school in the city, with roots dating back to our founding in 1851 alongside Saint Joseph’s University. And, we are the school with a long history of educating the best and brightest young men from across the Delaware Valley, with a geographic reach that no other school can equal.
In addition, the Prep is well known for its location in North Philadelphia. Since the 1880s, the school has stood in the area near 17th & Girard, right next to the majestic Church of the Gesu. From its founding in 1851, the Prep has been in the city, of the city, and for the city. St. Joseph’s Prep is proud to be Philadelphia’s Catholic, Jesuit high school.
When we say “The City is our Campus,” we mean that Philadelphia oozes through all of the work we do here. In the classroom, we utilize the city to enhance lessons. In our Jesuit Mission, we learn the diverse and wonderful history of faith in Philadelphia while also taking the opportunity to serve our neighbors. Our co-curriculars use locations in our areas, exposing our students to areas they would not have otherwise known. Philadelphia is more than our address; it is part of our identity.
Partners In North Philadelphia
In 1966, a great fire destroyed two-thirds of the Prep’s physical campus. At the time, many were encouraging the Jesuits to move out to a suburban campus, most likely near Saint Joseph’s College on City Avenue. At the time, the city was facing poverty, unrest, and many inner-city neighborhoods were crumbling.
The Jesuits stayed, both to be an anchor for the neighborhood and also to remain committed to their neighbors. Today, more than 50 years later, the Prep continues to partner with our city.
“Ignatius loved the cities,” says Rev. Stephen Surovick, S.J., Senior Director of Mission and Ministry. “When he and his companions looked for souls to help, they found plenty of people in need in the major cities of their time and place. Ignatius was, of course, imitating the work of Jesus and his apostles who did a lot of work as itinerant teachers, preachers, and healers throughout the cities and synagogues of their time. And so we respond in kind, as we, at 17th & Girard, look around our immediate surroundings and strive to accompany our neighbors in need. And in that exchange we, too, are blessed as the encounter becomes grace-filled for us all.”
Marinacci agrees. “Our location in North Philadelphia allows us the opportunity to be a community partner in many ways,” he says. “First, we can live our mission right on our front steps. Whether it is being in solidarity with the marginalized and discarded or partnering with our neighbors at the Gesu School and Girard College to really create a sense of place for and with North Philly. Being in North Philadelphia is not something we ever need to hide or explain but something of which we can be proud.”
Over the past few years, the Prep has partnered with food banks such as Caring for Friends to provide groceries and other essentials for our neighbors. Also, a Prep mom who is a veterinarian offered regular clinics for neighborhood pets to receive their shots and other treatments. Twice per month, students, faculty, and staff cleaned up the Girard Avenue corridor from Ridge to Broad to help keep our neighborhood clean. At the holidays, the students and families provide Thanksgiving meals (and then some) and at Christmas host the annual Operation Santa Claus in conjunction with the neighborhood block captains.
As Marinacci points out, the Prep’s role as a good neighbor means that we have an obligation to support our neighbors. “Situated where we are in North Philadelphia, we are called to partner with the local community and nonprofits to better support their work,” says Katie Iannacone Longto, Associate Campus Minister for Ignatian Service. “Our focus on cura urbi (care for the city) drives us to partner with organizations in our neighborhood such as the Gesu School and Sanctuary Farm and is rooted in the belief of St. Ignatius that ‘love is shown in deeds rather than in words.’ Through these partnerships, our students have the opportunity to develop relationships with community members and to learn more about the specific issues that impact our neighborhood.”
Once the renovations of Villiger Hall are completed, the Prep will have spaces to make available to community partners. The school also hosts regular meetings on campus for local block captains.
“I think, sometimes, there is a narrative that we are here to save the city,” Marinacci says. “I don’t believe that at all. We are here to celebrate the city. There is rich culture on every block in Philadelphia: community gardens; amazing architecture and art; and history, both positive and negative, that tell the story of our nation. We are here not only to soak that all in, but also to work together for causes that will improve the lives of those who live here with us.”
Philadelphia as a Classroom
Andy Cavacos, the Prep’s principal since 2019, was drawn to the school because of its commitment to the city. “The reality of that decision in 1966 cemented my own commitment to move from McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester to Philadelphia, and to invest in our city by moving to and buying a home in Mt. Airy,” he says. “The fact is this: we are not just a school in Philadelphia; we are Philadelphia, and we are proud of it.”
As principal, Cavacos has “traveled with colleagues, parents, and students to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and numerous alumni-owned ventures in Center City (not neglecting the opportunities for lunch at the Reading Terminal Market). There is no doubt that our teachers utilize the rich, diverse, and sophisticated tapestry that characterizes our great City of Brotherly Love.”
History teacher Bethany Weed is one of those teachers who meshes the city seamlessly into her courses. In classes such as A.P. Human Geography and a service learning course in Urban Studies focusing on food justice, Weed uses examples from the city during class discussion on topics they are studying.
“We need to understand the historical roots of the inequalities we see outside of our windows,” she says from her fourth-floor classroom in Jesuit Hall, which looks north toward the very neighborhoods that the course studies. “If we don’t know why things are the way they are, students will be left to their own assumptions and that can be dangerous because they are making judgments without all of the information.”
On this particular day, members of the A.P. Human Geography course are quietly working on their final projects, raising their hands to seek input from Ms. Weed. Many of the freshmen chose to focus on issues impacting Philadelphia and several also chose food insecurity, which they covered in depth during the class.
Kieran Lodewick ’25 created a website devoted to the topic of Malnutrition in Philadelphia, focusing on the discrepancies between areas of differing income levels. Edward Dingle ’25 did his research on gentrification in the area of West Philadelphia where he lives. Joseph Clark ’25 focused on carbon emissions in Philadelphia.
Perhaps nowhere in the curriculum is the city more integral than in the Summer Service Learning Course in Urban Studies. Weed merges two weeks of intense classroom work with hands-on experience throughout the city. The course focuses on issues of food justice and explores the needs of city residents and why many urban neighborhoods are considered “food deserts.” At the end of two weeks, students make presentations on the issue and offer solutions in the City Hall Caucus Room for members of City Council and their staff. The course is a perfect blend of the Prep’s mission in academics, service, and focus on the city.
Weed chose food as the subject of the course not just because of the urgent need but also the cultural importance it has for people. “I think food is not just a necessity but also a matter of dignity, identity, the way we create and sustain community, and something we enjoy,” she says. “It is a way to get to know our neighbors. Food is always the best way to get to know anybody. It is so much more than just a biological need.”
The course developed based on interest that Weed has in the topic, and the school’s North Philadelphia location provided the proximity to be able to study the problem firsthand. “The point of service learning is to learn primarily by serving alongside others with whom we may not normally interact,” she says. “The idea is that the students will then use their experiences to advocate for a change of some kind.”
More stories from our Philadelphia classrooms…
Teresa Hoffman recently took her Computer Science classes to visit Proscia, a Center City firm owned by David West ’12 and Coleman Stavish ’12 which uses technology to analyze data with the help of artificial intelligence to predict the likelihood of cancer in pathology reports. “Being able to be physically in that space gave the students a sense of the magnitude and importance of the life-saving software,” says Hoffman.
In April, Hoffman and her students visited Nerd Street Gamers for an esports tournament and tour of their vast facility. Located on North Broad Street, Nerd Street is the data hub for all internet traffic from Manhattan to Virginia. In addition, it is the region’s leader in esports training and its PCs are used to mine cryptocurrency at night. A few students applied for internships on the spot. “Having such a resource a short walk from our campus gave our students real insight into a world that we can only discuss in the classroom,” Hoffman says.
Freshman religion students have visited local churches, temples, mosques, and gurdwaras throughout the city as part of the World Religions curriculum. This spring, Religious Studies teachers Caroline Becker, Kevin Hensler, and Bill Kuncken took students to Rodeph Shalom on Broad Street to learn more about other faiths.
“From the Prep’s little corner of Philadelphia alone, we can walk or take the subway or a bus to almost any kind of religious community you can imagine: a Tibetan Buddhist temple; a Reform synagogue; Ukrainian Catholic, Russian/Greek/Albanian Orthodox, Baptist, Presbyterian, Independent, and Catholic churches, Quaker meeting houses, Hindu temples, a Sikh gurdwara, and Islamic centers and mosques,” Becker says.
She points out that “We are privileged to be residents in a city of religious ‘firsts’: first U.S. city to grant religious freedom in 1682 (which made Philadelphia the only place in the British Empire where public Masses were legal at the time of the American Revolution), the first independent Black denomination in the United States founded in 1794, and the first Roman Catholic church and school built specifically for a Chinese congregation in the United States in 1941.”
For Sophomore Retreat, the Mission and Ministry Office utilized area churches (Old St. Joseph, St. Augustine, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Peter, St. Agatha-St James, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Malachy) to introduce students to some of the city’s rich Catholic history. At each church, students were presented with a brief history of the churches they were visiting, which are some of the oldest in the city.
“When we speak about cura urbi, we tend to only think about the service that is done throughout our city, and tend to forget the spiritual care that is being done,” says Mark Dushel, Director of Mission and Ministry. “For the Sophomore Retreat, we wanted to help our students become more connected with the deep spiritual roots of Philadelphia and send them to different locations that have made a huge impact on the Catholic Church of Philadelphia.”
This year, Prep students, organized by History teacher Kathy Quinter, were invited by the Union League Legacy Foundation and the Prep Affinity Group (alumni of the Prep who are members of the Union League) to attend lectures at the Union League and to participate in the League’s 160 Acts of Patriotism. The students had the opportunity to listen to a number of outstanding speakers on various topics, including: General Jack Keane on current U.S. foreign policy and intelligence issues; Robert George, Professor at Princeton University, and Jeff Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, on upcoming Supreme Court cases; Heather Mac Donald, political commentator and author, on the culture wars in society today; John Yoo, Law Professor at the University of California at Berkeley,on US relations with the Soviet Union, the war in the Ukraine, and China’s foreign policy.
“The students literally had front row seats in the lectures, and they were able to engage the speakers both during the question and answer sessions as well as when they were introduced to the speakers after each talk,” says Quinter. “It is not every day that a person gets advice and encouragement from a retired four-star general. Both Robert George and Jeff Rosen during their presentation spoke directly to the Prep students about the need to read! It was such a wonderful opportunity for the students to listen to scholars and professionals who are at the forefront of national and international events, and the students greatly appreciated it. They learned so much in such a short period of time, and they truly enjoyed it.”
Sophomores in the American Studies course, team-taught by English teacher Dr. Chris Rupertus P ’24 and history teacher Bill Conners ’80. Each year, the class takes a walking tour of “William Penn’s Philadelphia,” using the streets and places of worship in Old City in the context of colonization and the pre-Federal period. Stops highlight the growth of the early Quaker settlement along the Delaware and include Arch Street Meeting, Christ Church, Old St. Joseph’s Church (the birthplace of the Prep and Saint Joseph’s University), and Mother Bethel A.M.E.
Over his 25 years at the Prep, Conners has offered hundreds of opportunities to hear book talks and lectures at significant cultural and historic sites such as the National Constitution Center, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the Library Company, the Free Library, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Catholic Historical Society. Students have had chances to meet and question significant historians such as Eric Foner, Martha Jones, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar; along with figures such as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Ambassador Mike McFaul, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Sanger, then-Senator Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. Students have also met Holocaust survivors, Negro League baseball stars, and Japanese Americans imprisoned by their own nation during World War II.
“I decided long ago that I would do my part to make sure that commuting into the most historic city in the United States would be more than an inconvenience for my students, many of whom hail from the suburbs,” Conners says. “We are so fortunate to be in the center of such a cultural gem, and our students grow immensely by exposure to the new ideas, new foods, and new experiences that only a great city can provide. And by learning to navigate our city, our graduates are positioned to navigate any great city, whether they are studying abroad in Shanghai or Berlin, or taking a job in Buenos Aires or Nairobi.”
History teacher Kate Ambrose recently took her African American Studies class to the Fairmount Water Works to explore their exhibit “POOL: A Social History of Segregation.” Students explored art installations and experiences, photographs, and archival film footage related to the nation’s handling of race in relation to public pools.
History teacher Leo Vaccaro ’05 often uses the city’s resources for his classes.
“In my classes in the last few years, we have worked with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Free Library; toured Valley Forge, the historic Germantown battlefield, Fort Mifflin, the National Constitution Center, and Laurel Hill Cemetery; participated in lectures at the American Revolutionary War Museum and the Union League; brought in a historian from the American Philosophical Society; worked with an economist from Wharton help to us review for the A.P. Micro exam; and hosted two historians who wrote the book on Octavius Catto,” he says. “We are very fortunate to be in this city and to enjoy the rich cultural heritage of this region”.
17th & Girard As a Gathering Place
For almost its entire history, the Prep has been proud to attract students from a wide variety of locations, from Doylestown to Wilmington, Medford Lakes to West Chester and all areas in between. In the past few decades, the geographic span has widened more than ever with transportation options more readily available. Perhaps no other high school can say that it draws from 174 zip codes and more than 160 feeder schools. The Prep truly is a rare place where young men from all of the area’s neighborhoods and counties can come together and form one community.
“Our location allows us to be a regional school where there is an intersection of worlds, geography, and cultures,” says Marinacci. “That means that whatever you come in with, you add to the ingredients that make the Prep so special. It also means that you leave with so much more than you arrived with.”
Diversity is valued at the Prep. Different geographic, socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds add to the tapestry of our Jesuit education.
“When students bring themselves to the community, that is the real addition for all of us,” says Marinacci. “They bring their identities to the Prep which further enriches all of us, broadening our understanding of the world in which we live. That is what we are all about: understanding brings empathy, which lends to tolerance. It is much harder to hate something that you know.”
Though some students are more widely traveled than others, all students who attend the Prep experience something new. For many of them, it is the first time they are responsible for their own transport to and from school. Whether it’s managing public transportation or driving in on their own or with an older student, students learn to navigate.
“For many of our students, the Prep is outside of their comfort zone,” says Marinacci. “We attract students and families looking for that expansion of their world. The Prep helps students learn independence and skills that a local high school often does not.”
Quinn Holden ’25 is one of those students who has seen his world expand significantly. A resident of Cheltenham, he sometimes gets a ride from his older brother Liam ’22, but also often uses public transportation, taking a train to Fern Rock where he catches the subway (and vice versa for the commute home). “I enjoy the commute because it’s a good time for me to chat with my brother or study for an upcoming test,” he says. “This commute has given me new scenery that I was not very accustomed to before, so it’s good for me to get to see it all. Though it’s with my friends most of the time, taking the train has given me a new sense of independence. At first, I admittedly was a little scared to take the train, but I soon realized that it was easy enough and important to learn. I could’ve gone to countless different schools that I would’ve driven 15 minutes or less to, but I’m glad that I didn’t because the drive and train have given me crucial knowledge.”
Involvement in sports and co-curricular activities adds to the experience. The Bowling Team uses the Broad Street Subway to get to practice in South Philadelphia. The Mountain Biking Team rides from the Prep through city streets to Fairmount Park and Kelly Drive. Outdoor sports play at fields from Temple University and Girard College to the Dairy Fields and Edgeley in Fairmount Park. Students see more of the city than they normally would. History Club has done research at the Historical Society of Philadelphia as well as made trips to Laurel Hill Cemetery to place flags on Historical Civil War graves. The Mock Trial Team competes at local sites including UPenn’s Wharton School of business, the Criminal Justice Center, and The Federal Courthouse in Old City. Our Asian Cultural Club celebrates Chinese New Year by sharing a meal in Chinatown. Our freshmen Brotherhood days include walking tours of the surrounding neighborhood including Girard College and Eastern State Penitentiary.
That expansion will pay dividends as students become alumni and travel through their life. “Part of it is gaining an understanding of Philadelphia and how to navigate through cities, but it’s more than that,” Marinacci says. “It also builds another aspect of intelligence. Problem solving, awareness, and a recognition of dynamics. It is everything from a better sense of geography to recognizing how neighborhoods change. It’s one thing to study these things, but another to see it happen around you.”