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St. Mary's School (Philadelphia, Pa.)


The mother school of Catholic parochial education in the American colonies, St. Mary's School was officially founded in 1782, although tradition, for which there is no documentary evidence, points to an earlier date, 1763. St. Mary's was not the first school of its kind; records of earlier foundations go as far back as the 17th century in New Mexico, Florida, and Maryland. The circumstances of St. Mary's foundation, however, the organization and characteristics of the school, and the special work of its founders combined to effect great influence on American Catholic educational patterns.

Despite penal laws, Catholics in Pennsylvania, by reason of their numbers, were allowed to build churches and schools by the middle of the 18th century. By 1763 the original Catholic parish of St. Joseph in Philadelphia had become too small to accommodate the city's Catholics and a new parish, St. Mary's, was formed.

Much of the progress of St. Mary's church and school is attributable to two zealous Jesuits, Ferdinand Steinmeyer and Robert molyneux, who contributed their services to the Catholic population of Philadelphia from 1758 through the Revolution. Steinmeyer, a German by birth, later took the name of Farmer because of his association with the German immigrants, most of whom were farmers (see farmer, ferdinand).

The church and priests' residence served as a school until 1782 when a two-story building was erected. There were two divisions: an upper school for the younger students, and a lower school for those who could "read and cypher." Instruction was given in religion and in the common branches of learning in keeping with established standards of excellence, and cash premiums were offered each month to students with the best records. Under the direction of Molyneux, Catholic textbooks were designed in reading, spelling, catechism, and the elementary subjects. St. Mary's also pioneered in evening school for those students who could not attend day sessions.

Although the school was first intended to be tuition-free, for financial reasons, and also because of the stigma still attached to the "free school," the original plan had to be modified and most students paid tuition of 20s. annually in the lower school and 17s. 6d. in the upper school. In 1783 the church board decided that each teacher would give free instruction to six students a year. The tuition scheme was later abandoned in favor of school revenues obtained through collections and gifts from private benefactors.

The school had two teachers, one for the upper and one for the lower school. A third was later added for students who could not afford tuition. The teacher supply problem, however, was acute, and salaries were soon a major issue. The decision to separate boys from girls and to employ a woman teacher for the latter helped solve some difficulties.

After Farmer's death in 1785 the German Catholics petitioned for a separate national church. A new school, similar to St. Mary's, however, began immediately; a third parish soon followed suit, and by 1800 Catholic parochial education had been established.

St. Mary's parish seemed to have solved the problem of Catholic education for its time and, although torn by factional dispute after 1785, the school continued to serve the cause of Catholic education.

Bibliography: j. a. burns, The Catholic School System in the United States (New York 1908). j. a. burns and b. j. kohlbrenner, A History of Catholic Education in the United States (New York 1937). j. d. g. shea, A History of the Catholic Church Within the Limits of the United States, 4 v. (New York 188692) v.2.

[r. m. mangini]

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