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Hallahan High School Building Exterior

The building exterior is rich in detail, encompassing English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew letters, numbers, and symbols. Most are Catholic symbols, and since Catholics make up 25% of the United States, the symbols are readily interpreted by them. Included here are some explanations for those not familiar with the iconography.

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Image from opening day, September 18, 1912, before the original Cathedral Parish School and St. Vincent's Home were demolished. The Wood Street entrance was the main entrance, with most of the terracotta work being done on the 19th and Wood Street sides of the building.

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Left: The original seal of Catholic Girls' High School, high above the 19th Street entrance, was designed by Bishop McDevitt.

Right: sketch of Hallahan seal of today. The name John W. Hallahan has been substituted for the word Philadelphia in the original. There are other variations of the seal as well.

There are four attributes of a Catholic woman written in Latin on the seal, each with its physical symbol:

  • Fides, faith, the lamp

  • Scientia, knowledge, the book

  • Modestia, purity, the lilies

  • Industria, hard work, the distaff (used in the spinning industry, and in former times a symbol of the female sex since most home spinners were women. Therefore the symbol of industry chosen here is a symbol of industry and women, the "distaff sex").

In the handle of the lamp there is a letter P with an X through its stem. This is a combination of the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek, and the chi-rho symbol, called a christogram, is used as a symbol for Christ. Although I am not sure this was intended, the P-X could also be a clever reference to the Pius X, the Pope at the time of construction who had blessed the cornerstone when it was brought to Rome.

Another symbol of Christ or God is the combination of the Greek letters alpha and omega written on the pages of the book. In Revelations 1:8, originally written in Greek, the divinity is referred to as "the alpha and the omega." These Greek letters, as well as the chi-rho, are often seen on altars as well.

The themes in the seal are repeated throughout the school. The words "Aptate lampades vestras" translate from the Latin to "Keep your wicks trimmed," an admonishment to keep ready for the second coming of Christ. This popular message in the Middle Ages was derived from a parable told by Christ in Matthew 25:1-13, that of the wise (lamps ready) and the foolish (lamps not ready) virgins.

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Portion of a 12th century manuscript from the University of Ottowa.

The last word of the first line begins the phrase "Prudentes virgines aptate lampades..."

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The virgins in the parable in Matthew were "Prudentes virgines," or wise virgins, and the 19th Street entrance to Hallahan has the superlative adjective applying to Mary, "Virgo Prudentissima," to the left above, a nice allusion to the parable and the medieval ecclesiastical chant.

The Roman numerals MCMXI above the door translate to 1911.

In 1916 the school hymn was composed, titled Aptate Lampades Vestras, and an original print can be seen online here, from the Library of Congress. This seems to be less well-known to the students than the school's alma mater, also composed in 1916.

Non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, are confused by the church's fascination with virgins. Even though the Latin phrase "Mater Admiribilis," or admirable mother as a title for Mary, is to the right of the 19th Street entrance, the Latin for wisest virgin as a title for Mary is to the left of the entrance. These titles seem biologically contradictory. Catholics, and some other Christian groups, believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, meaning that she is "ever virgin," a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus Christ.

Another clarification is often needed. The patroness of Hallahan is the Immaculate Mary, which title is often misinterpreted as referring to the conception of Jesus within Mary. But the phrase "immaculate conception" refers to the conception of Mary herself without original sin, the sinful condition cast upon all humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

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Cornerstone at the corner of 19th and Wood Streets.

The conerstone was purchased in Milan for $165, then brought to Rome for a papal blessing. it contains a metal box with artifacts from 1911.

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The Wood Street entrance was and is the main entrance to Hallahan. The stained glass in the transom is protected by a metal screen. The Great Seal of the United States is above the ornate lamp on the right, and the Papal Seal of Pius X is on the left.

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On the left is the Papal Seal of Pope Pius X above left of the Wood Street entrance. At right is a sketch of the seal. The crown, shield, and keys are standard papal emblems. Pius X had been prelate of Venice, a seagoing city whose symbol was the winged lion representing the evangelist (gospel writer) Mark. The lion holds a book inscribed "Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus," the motto of Venice, which means "Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist." The anchor and six-pointed star are taken from Hebrews 6:19, which says that the hope we have is the anchor of the soul. The star on the Hallahan building seal is an Americanized 5-pointed version.

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Through the magic of Hollywood, the Wood Street entrance was converted into the 11th Precinct Police Station in New York City for the 2011 film Limitless, starring Philadelphia-born and Jesuit-educated Bradley Cooper. Here he exits the "station" after his line up. This Hallahan entrance shows up in three separate scenes in the movie.

Although the hexagram star of David has been Americanized, a few other references to Judaism and stars can be found on the Wood Street side. A stone panel devoted to the Jewish queen of the Old Testament, Esther (Persian for "star"), can be found on the western end. Esther stands up for her people in the story celebrated yearly at Purim. 

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"Esther Exemplar of filial piety"

Western end of Wood Street side of Hallahan

Alpha-omegas and chi-rhos galore.

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The Great Seal of the United States above and right of the Wood Street entrance.

The 13 stars represent the 13 colonies at the time the seal was created. The star pattern forms a hexagram, or Star of David. There is nothing written contemporaneously that gives the reason for this pattern, and it is probably artist's choice.

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Due to overcrowding in the high school building, Hallahan took over the top two floors of the Cathedral parochial School in 1930, with a connector built between the high school and the Parochial School. Stairs connect the first floor of Hallahan to the second floor of the parochial school, and likewise for the second floor of Hallahan to the third floor of the parochial school. There used to be a green courtyard separating the two buildings.

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In 1914 the St. Vincent's Orphanage and the Cathedral Parish School just behind it were demolished and replaced with the Cathedral Parochial School. The cornerstone dated 1914 is in the lower left.

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The block long building is made up of at least three components, with dates of construction in yellow. The north section of the Cathedral Parochial School has different brickwork, and the third floor of that structure is several feet higher than the third floor of the Cathedral Parochial School, as it was an addition sometime between 1936 and 1939 during the enrollment peak.


Photo from 1930 showing the third floor addition on the Cathedral School Building in progress.

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When the diocese bought the property on which to build the two schools, it also purchased houses along the south side of Wood Street to try to have some control over the inhabitants of the houses at the front entrance of Hallahan. Those houses were all demolished to build the Family Court House.

In addition, there was at least one property on the north side of Carlton Street used by the school. The 1985 yearbook photo on the left shows the music annex, and by matching the brickwork in the 1985 picture it can be deduced that 1833 Carlton Street was this house. Property records show this house was sold in 1998 for $44,000 by Anthony Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1988 to 2003.

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What's everyone's favorite class in elementary school? Recess, of course. 

The photo shows the recess bell still there on the south side of the Cathedral Parochial School, calling the children to line up by grade for entry back into the school. The students let loose their energy on the wood-block-paved Wood Street during recess.

There are three more pages to this article on Hallahan: here for the history of the school; here for the interior; and here for a brief biography of the women whose names are carved in stone on the exterior.

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