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Hallahan High School

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19th Street entrance.

Cornerstone from 1911 in lower center of image.

Note: This page gives the general history of Hallahan High School. There are links at the bottom of this page to articles on the exterior of the building, the interior, and the names carved in the stone panels on the exterior.



In the second half of the 19th century in Philadelphia, high school education was a progressive priority, and action was taken in the Baldwin Park neighborhood. The first public high school, Central High School, had been established at Juniper and Market Streets (today's Macy's) in 1838, offering classes for boys that would accelerate upwards social mobility. The Girls' Normal School ("normal" meaning to provide education for those seeking to be teachers) was established in 1848. It was rebranded the Girls' High and Normal School in 1860, and moved to a new building at 17th and Spring Garden Streets in 1876, where the high school component remained after the normal and high schools became separate institutions in 1893. Spurred by the local industry in the neighborhood, as well as by the display of technological advances at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the Central Manual Training School was established in 1885 at 17th and Wood Streets (now the site of the ten NOVO town homes, soon to be completed). In 1895 the Pennsylvania Compulsory Education Law mandated education of children aged 8 to 13 for at least four months a year, thus generating many more potential high school students. In addition, although child labor laws would not be passed until 1916, there was a general progressive spirit in the air that children were benefited more by education than by putting them to work at low-skilled jobs.

The United States, despite its Constitutional separation of Church and State, was a decidedly Protestant country in the latter half of the 19th century. The Native American political party, with its motto "America for the Americans," opposed immigration of the Irish Catholics, those "Irish papists." Nativist riots broke out, with the anti-Catholic riot of 1844 resulting in the burning down of St. Augustine Church at 4th below Vine Street, St. Michael's in Kensington, and the near-conflagration of St. Philip Neri's Catholic Church in Southwark. Due to this open hostility, and the fact that public school classes read the Protestant Bible and not the Catholic Bible, the Catholic immigrants started their own schools. Most individual Catholic parishes had elementary schools by the late nineteenth century.

In 1890 the Catholic community felt it advantageous to have Catholic secondary schools as well, and Roman Catholic High School for Boys was opened at Broad and Vine Streets. The big donor to make this happen was Thomas Cahill, an Irish immigrant and entrepreneur who had made his money in coal and ice. He had consolidated Philadelphia's ice companies into one company, the Knickerbocker Ice Company, with its biggest plant located where the Rodin Museum is today. The ramp on the south side of the below-street-level construction at the southwest corner of 21st and Hamilton led up to the Knickerbocker Ice Company.

Roman Catholic High School was a huge success, which generated a search for a donor for a girls' high school. In 1901, three "Girls' Centers" were established for secondary education in parish schools, each taught by a different order of nuns. Two more centers followed in short order. One of these centers was at the Cathedral School, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. All of these centers were funded by the parishes. The senior commencement was a combined activity for all the centers, with 21 attending the initial graduation. In 1908 Mary Hallahan McMichan donated $100,000 ($2.8 million in today's dollars) to start a fund to build a central diocesan girls' high school. Mary was married to a successful woolen cloth importer, who had died in 1907, and she had worked for her eldest brother, John W. Hallahan, who had retired from a retail shoe business to invest in Center City real estate prior to his death in 1901.


On September 18, 1912, three blocks away from Philadelphia Girls' High School, and one block away from the Central Manual Training School, 550 students entered a new  high school in the neighborhood: Catholic Girls' High School. It was designed by the firm of Ballinger & Perrot. At first there were two tracks, a two-year commercial course and a college prep course, with the preponderance of students in the commercial track. The two-year course was extended to three years in 1920 and to the full four years in 1928.


This is the view looking north from Filbert Street around 1900. The J. Hallahan & Co. shoe store is on the right (northeast corner) and the P. T. Hallahan shoe store is on the left (northwest corner). John W. and Peter T. Hallahan were half-brothers, born two years apart in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Mary Hallahan McMichan was the full sister of Peter and Daniel Hallahan, and half-sister of John W., who was the eldest of the siblings. Peter and Daniel held up the dispersals from John W.’s will until an agreement was reached in 1910 in which Mary would put up 3/5 of the $100,000 for Catholic Girls High School and Peter and Daniel would each put up 1/5. Inheritances can make rivals of siblings, but it appears therte was a little brotherly competition even during life.

The offset in the street alignment seen here at the corner of Filbert and 8th Street is still there, but all these buildings have been demolished and replaced with a massive parking garage.

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Photo montage from the 1917 yearbook, the first.

The five original centers that centralized in 1912 at the Catholic Girls' High School.

The current site of the high school was originally part of William Penn's Springettsbury Manor. A 153-acre portion was given to Andrew Hamilton in repayment of legal services (as related here), and he named his estate Bush Hill. This estate was subdivided after James Hamilton died intestate and without children. In 1854, a plot from Carlton to Wood Street, going west 100 feet from 18th Street, was sold by the Hamilton heirs to Bishop John Neumann's successor (copy of 1854 six-page deed and abstract is here). St. Vincent's Orphanage was built on this plot. In 1861, Bishop Wood purchased the land through to 19th Street, at that time the land being valued at $100,000. 


The first detailed map of the Hallahan site is from 1867. St. Vincent's Home for young orphans was at the northwest corner of 18th and Wood Streets. In 1887, according to Hoffman's Catholic Directory of that year, there were 178 children under the age of five in the home which was managed by eleven Sisters of Charity (16 newborn to five year olds per Sister).

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Detail from Hexamer map of 1867. The future Baldwin Park will be at upper left on the two acres bisected by Tatlow Street.

18th Street runs vertically down the middle of this image.

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral was begun in 1846 and completed in 1864. There had been a seminary and an elementary school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart on the land that was to become the Cathedral. The school was relocated just west of the St. Vincent's Home as the Cathedral Parish School. This elementary school on Wood Street was for girls, while the boys stayed in the former seminary building on the northeast corner of 18th and Race Streets.

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Detail from Hexamer map of 1888.

The Cathedral Parish School is just west of the St. Vincent's Home. When St. Vincent's Orphanage moved to 20th and Race, the building was used for the St. Joseph's Center as discussed below.

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Detail from Hexamer map of 1922. The block bounded by 18th and 19th and by Wood and Carlton Streets has been filled in.

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St. Vincent's Orphanage/St. Joseph Centre was demolished in 1914 to build the co-ed Cathedral Parochial School.

Cornerstone notes building date of 1914. Above the door is "Cathedral Parochial School," parochial here meaning related to the local parish. The building was designed by E. F. Durang & Son, specialists in Catholic ecclesiastical projects. Edwin Forrest Durang was named after his father's friend, noted Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest, whose name is inscribed on the Shakespeare Memorial one block from Hallahan.

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One of the great features of Hallahan was, and still is, that it mixes together young women from all over Philadelphia and surroundings during their formative years.  The first yearbook shows the 89 parishes that sent girls to Hallahan.

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Chemistry class in 1916.

The current push for women in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) had nothing on the progressive education offered at Hallahan 100 years ago.

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Commercial basketball team of 1918.

Catherine Veronica Driscoll, in the upper right would graduate later in 1918. She went on to marry Tom Kearney, raise a family on the 1700 block of Carlton Street across the street from Hallahan, and be displaced by the Franklin Town project in the 1970's. The family would move to one of the new replacement homes on the 400 block of North 20th Street. One of her sons, Seamus, would grow up to become the first President of the Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park in 2007.

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Where would the Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park be without Hallahan graduates?

This 1930 yearbook photo shows the mother of our current Treasurer, Joan Markoe.

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First faculty picture

The thirty members of the faculty of 1920, prepared to meet their 900 students for the day. 

Most Catholic school alumni have fond memories of their gentle and nurturing teachers, those low paid nuns and priests who formed their characters.

With sixty in a high school classroom, somehow order was maintained. To set the proper initial tone for the school year, there's traditional advice given to all teachers: "Don't smile before Christmas." This photo may have been before Christmas.

Upon the death of Mary Hallahan McMichan, and in accordance with her will, the name of the school was changed to the John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School in 1925.

The school had been built with a capacity of 1,000 students. Enrollment exploded. St. Vincent's Orphanage and the Cathedral Parish School were demolished and replaced by the Cathedral Parochial School in 1914. In 1932, an annex system was set up in which freshman would remain at several local parish schools before transferring to Girls' High as sophomores. In 1930, the second and third floors of the Cathedral Parochial School building on 18th Street were utilized by Hallahan. A closed in fire escape with bridge connectors on the second and third floors allowed access between the buildings.

By 1927, in order to relieve overcrowding, an additional girls' high school was built at 45th and Chestnut, called West Philadelphia Catholic Girls' High School. This was followed by Little Flower Catholic Girls' High School at 10th and Lycoming in 1939 and Saint Hubert's Catholic Girls' High School at Cottman Street and Torresdale Avenue in 1940. Saint Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia was built in 1955. All these schools still exist in some form, although West Philadelphia Girls' and Boys' Catholic high schools merged, as did Saint Maria Goretti and Saint John Neumann Boys' High School.

The peak year for attendance at Hallahan was 1939, when 975 seniors graduated. In that year there were almost 2,000 freshman and sophomores in the annex schools at St. Joachim's (the first, opening in 1932), St. Elizabeth's, St. Peter's, St. Vincent's, St. Bartholomew's, and St. Bonaventure's, adding up to a total Hallahan enrollment of 4,754. After World War II there was flight of business, industry, and residents from the inner city, and school  enrollment dropped as well. Starting in 1920, a parish "tax" of $30 per student had become necessary to supplement donations, and this per capita payment was adjusted upwards over time. In the 1960s, as parish attendance and resources decreased, tuition became necessary to augment the education contributions from the parishes. There were fewer and fewer nuns, who worked inexpensively, and more salaried lay faculty had to be hired. But Hallahan in 1960 still had over 2,000 students, and classrooms built to accommodate 40 students had to hold 50. In the next decade, the area surrounding Hallahan became more distressed (see Franklin Town article here), and parents became reluctant to send their daughters into the area.

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Classroom in 1942

There are 72 students visible in this image. Despite having the freshman and many sophomores attend classes in annex buildings scattered throughout Philadelphia, the central Hallahan building, built for 1,000 students, was still crowded. Somehow classroom learning occurred.

Hallahan Traditions

Over its 118-year life, many traditions have arisen at Hallahan, some still firmly in place. 

One tradition that has petered out is that of nuns bearing the teaching burden. There were fewer Sisters entering the convents, and veteran Sisters were often reassigned to other community welfare programs.

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Dolls made up to show the different habits (clothing) of the orders of nuns who have taught at Hallahan.

From left to right, and their relationship to original five centers: 

  • Sister of Notre Dame (fifth center, staffed Hallahan later)

  • Sister of the Holy Child Jesus (original three centers, staffed Hallahan later)

  • Sister of St. Joseph (original three, original staffers of Hallahan)

  • Sister of St. Francis (fourth center, original staffers of Hallahan)

  • Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (original three, original staffers of Hallahan)

  • Sister of Mercy (original staffers of Hallahan)

  • Sister of Holy Family of Nazareth (staffed Hallahan later)

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Image from the 1960 Hallahan yearbook, Silver Sands, showing the literally hundreds of performers for the annual musical.

Orchestra, chorus, marching band, and glee club were the status extracurricular activities at Hallahan until the 1970s. Basketball had always been big at Hallahan, but other sports joined basketball in supplanting the musical activities at least in number of participants.

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You can tell a student grade level by the color of the lanyard and the emblem on her uniform.

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This uniform style, with blue woolen jumper and long-sleeved collared white blouse, was instituted in 1923 with only minor changes since. Saddle shoes, or "funkies," were briefly mandatory in the 1970's and 1980's.

All the diocesan schools had the same basic uniform in different colors with different school emblems.

The picture is of a Catholic Girls' High School uniform from 1929.

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Entrance to Hallahan gymnasium.

Mickey Mouse was born at Disney in 1928. Two years later, in search of a mascot, Sister Regina asked Walt Disney to allow Mickey to be used as Hallahan's mascot. Permission was granted.

On the last day of class, advancing freshman, sophomores, and juniors jump in the fountain at Logan Square, an event often covered by the local media. The tradition began as a non-sanctioned event in the late 1960's, when students began jumping in the fountain at Kennedy Plaza (now called Love Park), away from the gaze of the Prefect of Discipline. In 1983, National Geographic included the tradition in an article on Philadelphia, and shortly afterwards the traditional last day dip moved to Logan Square.

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Class of 2002 getting ready for summer in the Logan Square fountain.

Students in Kennedy Plaza fountain as pictured in the March 1983 edition of National Geographic.

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Graduating class numbers by year.

There is only one century-old building in the neighborhood that retains its original purpose. John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School at 311 North 19th Street has been a neighborhood anchor for over 100 years, the first all-girls diocesan high school in the country. Over 40,000 graduates have passed through its doors. In its early years it was surrounded by coal yards, factory smoke, the sounds of banging steel and railroad engines, and working class residences. Now it is surrounded by world-class museums, brunch lines, yoga studios, and luxury condos, but it is still fulfilling its mission of educating young women.


Tuition with fees is now about $9,000 per year, and enrollment for 2019-2020 is 375, one tenth of what it was at its peak. The building is beautiful, the staff dedicated, and the students enthusiastic. There is capacity for increased enrollment, and students of all faiths are welcome. The tuition may be a barrier, but is 1/3 the cost of St. Joe's Prep and 1/4 the cost of Friends Select, and financial aid is available. Hopefully this neighborhood asset will be around for at least the next 100 years.

Here are a few final images to place Hallahan High School within the Matthias Baldwin Park neighborhood.

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1932 photo looking north across empty lot on which the Family Court Building will be built starting in 1938. Nineteenth Street is on the left. Hallahan and Cathedral Parochial School are in the foreground.

The light colored building with the water tanks was part of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, as was the darker building complex on 18th Street to the right, but these became warehouses when Baldwin moved to Eddystone by 1926.

The building at far left was a warehouse for American Stores (Acme) in 1932. It is now the site of the Tivoli Condominiums.

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2019 photo from the roof of Hallahan looking north.

The empty lot at 18th and Callowhill Streets is the field on the right. Baldwin Park is just over the Callowhill Cut beyond this lot.

From left to right in rear are seen the Granary Apartments, The Tivoli, Hamilton Townhomes, Spring Garden Towers, and North x Northwest Apartments. 

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This photo from 1936 is a reminder that the Cathedral Parochial School in the eastern half of the building complex took care of the elementary school tykes, including the future lawyer with the attache case seen here ascending the Wood Street stairs.

For further reading on Catholicity in Philadelphia through 1909, I can recommend this 600 page book written from the Catholic perspective.

For a 19-page history of Hallahan through 1960, see here. Registration is free for the website.

There are additional pages to this main article: here for images and descriptions of the building exterior; here for the interior; and here for a brief biography of the women whose names are carved in stone on the exterior.


In November of 2020 it was announced by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that John W. Hallahan Girls High School would close at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Alumnae and preservationists banded together to try to get the buildings on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The application is here. There is much architectural information in this detailed application.

Hallahan was sold by the archdiocese to developer Lubert-Adler for $13.1 million in 2022

authored by Joe Walsh

Original article September 2019

Updated 19 February 2024

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