The West Catholic story, from its inception in the early part of the twentieth century, is essentially a story of two Philadelphia Catholic high schools. Over the better part of one hundred years their histories would unfold side by side before eventually merging.
In 1916, Auxiliary Bishop John McCort and the pastors in West Philadelphia led an effort to expand opportunities for Catholic secondary education in the city. Their appeal to Archbishop Edmond Prendergast met with success and resulted in inviting the Brothers of Mary to administer and staff West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys. While this third high school in the archdiocese was under construction at 49th and Chestnut Streets, students attended classes at Transfiguration and St. Gregory’s parishes. Once completed, the new school provided four years of secondary education for boys in West and Southwest sections of Philadelphia as well as from its western suburbs.
Ten years later, as enrollment continued to build, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty added a second building and asked the Brothers of Mary to increase their staffing. Because the Marianists were not able to make such an accommodation at the time, Cardinal Dougherty asked the De La Salle Christian Brothers to assume direction of the school in September 1926.
In 1927 the Archdiocese added a fourth high school to their system (Roman, West Boys, and Hallahan) with the opening of West Catholic Girls’ High School at 45th and Chestnut streets. From its earliest days the school was staffed by religious orders of sisters and a priest Principal. Prominent among those orders were the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of St. Francis, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Christian Charity, the Sisters of the Holy Child, and Sisters of Notre Dame.
Located just four blocks from each other, both schools would flourish, providing secondary education for hundreds of students coming from parochial schools within its geographical boundaries. In those early years, the brothers and sisters formed the great majority of their respective faculty, but laymen and women were gradually integrated into the education mission. Together they would lay foundations for two great traditions, graduating young men and women who would go on to higher education, enlist in the armed service, or be eagerly sought after by local employers.
In the 1930s, an expanding system of Catholic education was in the forefront of faith based education in the United States and was even getting worldwide attention for their comprehensive courses of studies in the arts, sciences, commercial, and technical subject areas. That may have been partly the reason for a visit to the girls’ school in 1936 by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who was serving as Vatican Secretary of State. Three years later, following his election as Pope Pius XII, the school was proud to feature his picture on the cover of the 1939 yearbook.
In 1936, space limitations at West Catholic Boys led to a decision by the Archdiocese to build St.Thomas More High School at 47th and Wyalusing streets in West Philadelphia. It was staffed by diocesan priests and laymen in its early years. In 1957, Cardinal John O’Hara invited the Vincentian Fathers to assume administration of the school. They did so and continued to form young “men for all seasons.”
The West schools continued to be the beacon for quality Catholic education and by the 1950s both West Catholics marked their peak enrollments in the range of 2700 boys; school and 3,400 at West Girls. During this period of steady increase in enrollment, many students of both schools had to remain in their parish schools, as annexes, for the ninth grade. This period was also marked by outstanding academic and extracurricular accomplishments, as well as significant increases in the number of their graduates continuing on to higher education. Likewise, both schools were recognized as being instrumental in inspiring numerous vocations to the religious life and priesthood.
Responding to the post baby boom in the 1960s, the Archdiocese was engaged in planning for the construction of additional high schools in the city and the suburbs. This was a costly project that would require more financial support than was available through the traditional parish subsidies. In 1969, school tuition was introduced for the first time. Over time, annual increases in tuition would inevitably result in the loss of students. This had an impact on smaller schools such as St. Thomas More, resulting in its closure in 1978, and the transfer of its students to West Catholic High School for Boys which helped to bolster declining enrollment at that facility.
In 1984, West Catholic High School for Boys was recognized by the Council of American Private Education as an exemplary high school, one of 60 celebrated in the United States. Nevertheless, the cost of maintaining large facilities with declining enrollment in the same neighborhood was becoming more problematic. Consequently, in 1989, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua announced the merger of boys and girls into a single co-educational program located at 45th and Chestnut streets. It would be known as West Philadelphia Catholic High School. It was also decided at that time that the school move to a President-Principal paradigm of administration, with a Brother serving as President and a Sister as Principal. Likewise, a Development Office was also created to seek additional sources of funding beyond tuition, fees, and traditional fundraising methods.
Total school enrollment as a result of the merger was approximately 1,800, which allowed West Catholic to continue to offer a variety of academic courses in its college preparatory program as well as a substantial number of extracurricular programs. In 1994, the new coeducational school was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. Enrollment challenges would persist, however, as the traditional feeder schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia continued to decline. This resulted in more students being admitted from public schools, most of whom would be from other faith traditions.
In the early 1990s, under increasing pressure from parents, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia adopted an open enrollment policy allowing students to apply to any of the Archdiocesan high schools. The subsequent inter-school competition became an added challenge, especially for the older high school in the inner city. Consequently, continuing enrollment declines and associated fiscal pressures led Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to announce the closing of ten of the system’s high schools. After the schools rallied to save their institutions with the help of supportive Alumni and Alumnae as well as a vocal parental base, the Cardinal rescinded his decision, but all involved realized, on a deeper level, the challenges facing the schools were substantial.
In early 2012, a special Archdiocesan commission recommended to the newly installed Archbishop Charles Chaput that four high schools, including West Catholic, be closed at the end of the academic year. This led to a number of prominent Catholic business professionals to join with the school in advocating the Archbishop for their continuance. Their combined efforts were eventually successful in giving all four high schools a reprieve. Unfortunately, during the time it took to reverse the closure decision, collateral damage existed in the existing freshman class and the incoming applicants. This situation presented significant leadership challenges for Brother Richard Kestler, as he returned to West Catholic as President, and for Sister. Mary Bur as she continued as Principal. Together they would lead the school community in revamping the school's recruitment efforts, broadening the membership of its Board of Trustees, bringing new expertise to the Office of Institutional Advancement, and seeking out partnerships with institutions of higher learning, especially in University City.
Understanding that the school was then at a very critical juncture, the Board of Trustees felt that, in addition to the above measures, a modification of its traditional name would help to give renewed impetus and direction to its internal efforts, while also communicating an important message to its stakeholders and broader community. As a result, the Archdiocese authorized transforming the school's name to West Catholic Preparatory High School.
In the past several years, recruitment efforts have been trending toward incoming classes of approximately 125 students. If the school is able to continue in this direction, it is expected that enrollment will be in the 500 range in the near future. During the past few years relationships have also been established with Drexel University, resulting in the development of an engineering program for selected students, which is now in its third year. Likewise, through the collaboration between a local philanthropist and Drexel University, West Catholic Prep has also been the beneficiary of much needed practice fields at the university Another initiative undertaken with Lankenau Hospital has provided students with health related training experiences as part of their course of studies. In the spring of 2016, West received a five million dollar gift from an alumni, Mr. Leonard Mazur. This much needed donation will enhance our academic program, update our technology, and improve the upkeep of the school. Brother Richard Kestler was instrumental in the processing of this generous largesse.
During the 2014-15 school year, Sr. Mary Bur announced that she would be leaving her position as school principal of West Catholic. Sister served our school with distinction for 28 years. After a search by the Archdiocesan Office of Education, Mr. James Gallagher was appointed her successor. He is the first lay person to serve in this capacity in the school’s history, Mr. Gallagher assumed office in July 2015. As another major transition, Brother Richard Kestler announced his retirement from his duties as school President. With this event, the Christian Brothers will leave West Catholic Prep, a flagship school for their community. Mr. Paul Colistra will assume the role of school President as we move more deeply into the twenty-first century. Like all living beings, West Catholic Prep continues to write its history on a daily basis
West in all its forms has been referred to as a beacon and an oasis, but for those who had the honor and the pleasure of the West Experience, it will always be referred to as WEST IS BEST! When many graduates are asked “What makes West so special?” the answers may vary but there are certain streams of agreement among the answers. In the words of loyal alumni /alumnae:
“Every good school has good teachers, coaches, and students but only WEST has them and then mixed in a Tradition of Excellence, an active and supportive alumni/ alumnae, parents who make unbelievable sacrifices and continuous allegiance to God and Country. West has been doing this for ONE HUNDRED YEARS. There is no other school like this – anywhere- and we have been so very fortunate to have experienced WEST. It is, indeed, very special. WEST IS – AND ALWAYS WILL BE - BEST!”