On the morning of September 15, 1851, some thirty young men gathered in the courtyard outside Saint Joseph’s Church, located in Willing’s Alley off Walnut and Fourth Streets and one block from Independence Hall. After attending High Mass and reciting the Veni Creator in the church, these young men were assigned to their classes in a building adjacent to the church. That September morning marked the beginning of a rich and exciting history for Saint Joseph’s University.
As far back as 1741, a Jesuit College in Philadelphia had been proposed and planned by Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J., the first resident pastor of Saint Joseph’s Church. The suppression of the Jesuits (1773-1814) and lack of human and financial resources delayed for over a hundred years the realization of Fr. Greaton’s plans for a college. Credit for founding the college is given to Rev. Felix Barbelin, S.J., who served as its first president. He, along with four other Jesuits, formed the first faculty of Saint Joseph’s College. Before the end of the first academic year, the enrollment rose from fewer than forty to ninety-seven students. In the following year (1852), when the college received its charter of incorporation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the enrollment grew to 126 students.
In January, 1856, Saint Joseph’s College moved to a more spacious site on the fashionable Filbert Street. Due to financial difficulties and the serious illness of the college’s second president, the college returned to its Willing’s Alley location in 1860. Shortly thereafter, the civil strife between the North and South became the first of many wars that would greatly diminish the college’s enrollment. Through the Civil War and postbellum years, Saint Joseph’s College struggled to remain in existence.
With the purchase in 1866 of a city block between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets fronting on Stiles Street as a new site for the college, its future began to look brighter. Rev. Burchard Villiger, S.J., one of the original members of the college faculty, became its president in 1866. It was during his tenure that new college buildings, made possible largely through a generous bequest from the estate of Francis Anthony Drexel, were constructed on the Stiles Street location.
A sporadic but continuing growth, both in student enrollment and academic excellence, is recorded for the new life of Saint Joseph’s College from September 2, 1889, when the college moved from Willing’s Alley to Stiles street, until 1927, when a still larger campus was judged necessary.
In November 1922, an ambitious building fund campaign to raise $1,000,000 was organized by Rev. Matthew Fortier, S.J. His work in this difficult undertaking was successful and the pledges did exceed that goal, but the actual contributions did not. Subsequently, Saint Joseph’s College was able to purchase twenty-three acres in a beautiful residential area at the western edge of the city. Construction of a handsome building in modern Collegiate Gothic architectural style was begun in November 1925. Its dedication took place on November 14, 1927. From that time to the present, the location of Saint Joseph’s has been 54th and City Avenue.
During the Second World War, the college’s enrollment was again greatly reduced. Following the war, aided by the "G.I. Bill of Rights," enrollment grew rapidly. In 1943, an Evening College was founded. It was also after the war that Saint Joseph’s acquired several spacious homes adjacent to the campus, which were converted to its first residences for students.
Through the decade of the sixties, Saint Joseph’s experienced unprecedented physical growth. Five more properties were added to the campus including the nine-acre estate of Margaret Gest, a Jesuit faculty residence, the Post classroom building, a science center, the Drexel Library building, a six-story student dormitory and expansion of the Student Center. All enhanced the modern facilities of the campus.
In the fall of 1970, the undergraduate day college opened its doors to women, bringing to an end its tradition as an all-male institution. Saint Joseph’s was recognized as a university by the Secretary of Education of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on July 24, 1978. The corporate charter was formally changed to reflect university status on December 27, 1978. Shortly thereafter the University added a College of Business and Administration to complement the College of Arts and Sciences, and it also expanded graduate programs.
At the same time, Saint Joseph’s built a new Student/Sports Recreation Complex. The need for a larger library prompted the expansion of the University’s Drexel Library into a Library/Learning Resources Center. The campus was enlarged to 49 acres with the purchase of Saint Mary’s and Bronstein halls.
The last decade has marked an era of significant change in student enrollment; development of new undergraduate and graduate programs in all three colleges; integration of state-of-the-art technology of every kind, in the classroom and throughout the campus; upgrading of science laboratories; hiring of new faculty; and new campus construction.
Among the most important building projects undertaken are the following: the Chapel of St. Joseph; the McShain Student Residence and its footbridge traversing City Avenue and linking the city and suburban campuses; Mandeville Hall, home of the Erivan K. Haub School of Business; three large new student residence halls and a parking garage; and a new boathouse on Philadelphia’s famed Kelly Drive.
In the summer of 2005, the University agreed to purchase the Merion campus of neighboring Episcopal Academy. The acquisition will add to Saint Joseph’s footprint 38 acres containing 52 classrooms, eight laboratories, 113 offices, and 14.5 acres of playing fields. Subsequent to the announcement of the agreement, alumnus James J. Maguire ‘58 donated $10 million to help fund the purchase, and Saint Joseph’s officials announced that the tract will be known as the Maguire Campus once the University takes possession of it, expected to be 2008 or 2009. Maguire’s gift was later matched by a donation of the same amount by Brian Duperreault ‘69; the two donations are the largest alumni gifts in Saint Joseph’s history.
External and peer review are also indicators of institutional progress and the awarding of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to the university and AACSB accreditation in both business and accounting for the Haub School of Business augur well for the future of Saint Joseph’s.