The Early Years
Philadelphia has long been home to a range of citizens from varying socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the city grew rapidly, at times overflowing with new inhabitants. There was no school law at the time, and many children were expected to work during the week to support their families. Diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis struck families living in cramped quarters, and Society Hill was no exception.
Since so many children worked Monday through Saturday, the only opportunity to attend school was on Sunday (when children were often idle and inclined to misbehave). A number of concerned residents convened the First Day Society, bringing Sunday School instruction to Philadelphia. Female Sunday School Societies soon followed, providing instruction in religion, reading, and writing aimed at poor and working class children. St. Peter’s Church, originally part of Christ Church before separating in 1832, formed St. Peter’s Sunday School Society. The Sunday School Society held its first classes in a parishioner’s pew for several years before moving to a vestry room. In 1832, they purchased a parish house at 319 Lombard Street.
In 1833, the vestry of St. Peter’s Church authorized a committee to study the Moyamensing School as a model for a proposed day school at St. Peter’s. Largely the work of two women of the parish, the Moyamensing School had expanded quickly and successfully to meet the needs of area students. So convinced by the success of this model, the Church opened St. Peter’s Day School in January 1834 for girls and small boys. (Older boys still worked during the week and were unable to attend.) Nineteen students were supervised by a ladies’ committee, and by the end of the year, 58 students were enrolled under Miss Elizabeth Selby. Tuition was 12 ½ cents per week and included instruction in spelling, reading, writing, geography, sewing, and religion.
Over the next several decades, the School grew and evolved to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Among its many titles were Sunday School, Day School, Adult School, Free School affiliated with the Episcopal Academy, and Kindergarten for the children of working mothers. Attendance flourished, and in 1870, the School expanded into a new building on Lombard Street.
St. Peter’s Choir School for Boys
By the end of the century, enrollment had declined due to the construction of the adjacent George M. Wharton Public School and the institution of child labor laws. Ernest Felix Potter, a parish organist, proposed that the day school become a choir school. In September 1903, it reopened as St. Peter’s Choir School for Boys in Third through Eighth Grades, becoming one of the most prominent of its kind by 1919. Potter became the first headmaster and choirmaster. Boys travelled by train and trolley from all over Philadelphia to attend and earned the noted achievement of singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The boys performed concerts for radio broadcasts, recorded songs for Victor Red Seal Records, shared the stage at the Academy with the Mendelssohn and Orpheus Clubs, and gained admission to prestigious secondary schools.
Following a half century of success as a choir school under Potter and his successor, Harold Wells Gilbert, the School again faced declining enrollment in the late 1950s and was considered by the parish a financial burden. Reverend Joseph Koci, Jr. proposed separating the roles of headmaster and choirmaster, prompting Gilbert, an eminent organist, choirmaster, and headmaster, to resign after 45 years of service to the School. The vestry voted for the School to remain open as a school for boys, with Koci as headmaster, but Gilbert’s resignation was devastating. Only 12 boys enrolled the following September, nearly all faculty, alumni, and choir members resigned from the parish, and all school and board records were destroyed. With enrollment and morale at an all-time low, these were difficult years for the School.
A Return to Coeducation
Finally, in 1964, the School returned to its coeducational roots and formally changed its name to St. Peter’s School. The first Harvest Festival was held by St. Peter’s Church to kindle interest in the School, and other annual festivities soon followed. A nursery school opened in the same year, while a Kindergarten and First Grade were added in 1965.
While families always played an integral role in St. Peter’s School’s history, the School’s Parents Association was officially founded in 1966. Caroline E. Seamans was appointed the first full-time Head of School in 1967. In 1969, the School was legally separated from St. Peter’s Church and was incorporated with its own Board of Trustees as an independent and nonsectarian school. In April 1972, it was fully accredited by the Pennsylvania Association of Private Academic Schools (now PAIS).
St. Peter’s School grew throughout the 1970s to accommodate an increasing number of children. The stair tower was constructed in 1975, followed by the west playground in 1976. At the same time, the families of the School joined the Friends of Old Pine Church to build Old Pine Community Center less than one block west. The completion of the center in 1977 allowed the School to convert its Third Floor gymnasium into the Robert B. Blum Library and two additional classrooms. An ambitious addition was then made to the original 19th century building in 1983. These modern renovations helped to maintain the School’s mission of balancing old and new while meeting the needs of a diverse student body.
In July 2013, the School endured a fire that resulted in major damage to the west Early Childhood Division (ECD) space and smoke damage on all three floors. Reparations began immediately and school opened on schedule in September. Modular classrooms were temporarily installed on the blacktop for Preschool and Prekindergarten students.
The School formally purchased its home at 319 Lombard from St. Peter’s Church in October 2016.
In the past five years, with the help and support of many generous donors, the School has sustained the following improvements:
- repurposing its basement from a storage space to a working Innovation Lab used by students and faculty for LEGO® Robotics, 3D printing, Rube Goldberg experiments, woodworking, math classes, and after care;
- renovating its Lower School art studio and creating an egress between the art studio and Innovation Lab;
- refurbishing its main entrance, reception, and lobby;
- installing a recording studio and video editing suite;
- remodeling its kitchen and faculty lounge.