Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools records
Held at: Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center [Contact Us]100 E. Wynnewood Rd., Wynnewood, PA
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The first Catholic schools in Philadelphia were founded in the late 18th century as local parishes established schools for young children, and private donations allowed for the creation of several Catholic academies. Catholic children enrolled in newly created parish schools received instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. The early expansion of Philadelphia Catholic education occurred unsystematically and with no centralized organization beyond the individual parishes. The first efforts to unify and coordinate Catholic schooling in Philadelphia occurred in the 1850s when the Right Reverend John Neumann created a city-wide board of education, which representatives from each parish with a school were invited to join. The Bishop of Philadelphia served as the board’s first presiding officer. However, until the 1890s, this central agency developed little in the way of consistent policies.
In 1890, the central board representing the parishes voted to create an administrative staff to develop a cohesive curriculum and standardized policies regarding personnel, attendance, grading, and examinations. Within one year, newly hired administrators issued directives regularizing the work of the parish schools. In 1895, the board established a group of inspectors to oversee the schools, and in 1901 the power to appoint principals and teachers was transferred from local priests to the central board.
Most importantly, in 1899 the board selected Father Philip McDevitt as superintendent of Catholic schools in Philadelphia (McDevitt was the second appointed superintendent; the first being John W. Shanahan, whose tenure ran from 1869-1899). Foremost on Superintendent McDevitt’s agenda was the building of a diocesan high school system. By the turn of the 20th century, private Catholic academies remained the only option to pursue Catholic secondary education. McDevitt advocated for the creation of new high schools with practical curricula to attract Catholic families away from public high schools; operated on a citywide basis, these schools would act to upgrade and standardize the curriculum and practices of the decentralized feeder parish schools. In establishing a secondary school structure, McDevitt also could cite the authority of the American Council of Bishops and their call for establishing Catholic high schools throughout the country.
In an effort to present a flagship for his new educational system, McDevitt instituted a pragmatic three-track program at Roman Catholic High School for Boys, the first free Catholic secondary school in the United States. There, with a faculty entirely comprised of lay teachers, students could pursue academic, commercial or mechanical courses, all within a common framework of manual and business training instruction, in addition to religious teaching. Vocational training advances continued with the creation of a separate set of high schools for Catholic girls, with the first, Catholic Girls' High School (now known as John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School), opening in 1912. The Archbishop Ryan School for Children with Deafness also was founded in 1912. Two more girls’ Catholic high schools opened under McDevitt’s tenure, which concluded in 1916 when he was named the fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania by Pope Benedict XV. John E. Flood, superintendent from 1916 to 1922, and Joseph M. O’Hara, superintendent from 1922 to 1926, continued solidifying McDevitt’s initiatives in standardizing pragmatic vocational education in Philadelphia Catholic schools through frequent site visits to schools, subsequent school reports, and frequent communication with parishes and parishioners to grow the Catholic educational community.
The Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools records date from 1890 to 1932, with bulk dates of 1910 to 1926, and document the administrations of Philip R. McDevitt, superintendent from 1899 to 1916; John E. Flood, superintendent from 1916 to 1922; and Joseph M. O’Hara, superintendent from 1922 to 1926. While the collection mainly pertains to McDevitt, Flood, and O’Hara, it also contains a small amount of records associated with the administration of John J. Bonner, superintendent from 1926 to 1945.
The collection contains three series: Series “I. Philip R. McDevitt, 1890-1920,” Series “II. John E. Flood, 1916-1923,” and Series “III. Joseph M. O’Hara, 1922-1932.”
Series “I. Philip R. McDevitt” dates from 1890 to 1920, with bulk dates of 1910 to 1915, and contains mostly correspondence, financial records, examination materials, notes, and clippings. Records are arranged in three subseries: “Ia. Correspondence, 1890-1920,” “Ib. Catholic Girls' High School, 1891-1920," "Ic. School files, 1899-1916,” and “Id. Other records, 1903-1915.”
Subseries “Ia. Correspondence” dates from 1890 to 1920, with bulk dates of 1910 to 1916, and contains correspondence regarding the administration of archdiocesan schools (subjects include vaccinations, medical inspections, student enrollment, employment certificates, textbooks, tests, policy, and curriculum), as well as a substantial amount of personal correspondence from colleagues, officials from local government entities (such as the Bureau of Compulsory Education the Bureau of Health), and clergy, missionaries, and laypeople in Philadelphia and elsewhere. This subseries also includes correspondence regarding meetings, committees, organizations, and speaking engagements. This subseries is arranged chronologically, with a small grouping of folders organized alphabetically by subject or correspondent at the end of the subseries. Some correspondence regarding the Catholic Girls' High School may be found here as well as in subseries "Ib. Catholic Girls' High School".
Subseries "Ib. Catholic Girls' High School" dates from 1891 to 1920, with bulk dates of 1911 to 1915, and contains records regarding the planning, construction, fundraising, furnishing, maintenance, and administration of Catholic Girls' High School. Topics include contractors and builders, supplies, furniture, infrastructure, donations and fundraising, curriculum planning, as well as early designs of the school seal and insignia. This subseries in arranged chronologically.
Subseries “Ic. School files” dates from 1899 to 1916, with bulk dates of 1899 to 1909, and contains correspondence, school inspection reports, notes, examination materials, and other records pertaining to various schools throughout the school district of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Reports generated from school site visits consist of comments on overcrowded conditions, effectiveness of teachers and teaching methods, general atmosphere, and comments on students’ ability to pass tests generated by the superintendents’ office specifically for site visit purposes (many of which are included with the site visit reports). McDevitt felt strongly about properly-trained lay teachers in his schools. This subseries is divided into two groups: school inspection reports and general school files. The school inspection reports are organized alphabetically, first by parish schools in Philadelphia, then by parish schools outside Philadelphia, then followed by “Special" schools. These Include schools of ethnic parishes, industrial schools, and schools run by orphanages or children’s homes. The general school files are arranged chronologically and contain assorted records including student lists, meeting reports, exams, and curricula.
Subseries “Id. Other records” dates from 1903 to 1915, with bulk dates of 1910 to 1914, and contains assorted correspondence, school-related ephemera, clippings, writings and speeches by McDevitt, and other records. This subseries is arranged chronologically.
Series “II. John E. Flood” dates from 1916 to 1923 and contains mostly correspondence, as well as a small amount of notes, school-related ephemera, rosters, and other administrative records. Records are arranged in two subseries: "IIa. Correspondence, 1916-1922" and "IIb. School files, 1916-1923."
Subseries "IIa. Correspondence" dates from 1916 to 1922 and contains correspondence regarding the administration of archdiocesan schools (subjects include many of the same represented in Subseries Ia). This subseries is arranged chronologically.
Subseries "IIb. School files" dates from 1916 to 1923 and contains assorted records, reports, and printed materials regarding enrollment, textbooks, school inspections, and exams. This subseries also contains a small amount of records pertaining to the Catholic Girls’ High School. This subseries is arranged chronologically.
Series “III. Joseph M. O’Hara” dates from 1922 to 1932, with bulk dates of 1922 to 1926, and contains correspondence, notes, financial records, and assorted administrative records, particularly regarding the Catholic Girls’ High School. Records are arranged in two subseries: “IIIa. Correspondence, 1922-1929” and “IIIb. School files, 1922-1932.” Researchers should note that some materials from the administration of superintendent John J. Bonner may be found in this series.
Subseries “IIIa. Correspondence” dates from 1922 to 1929, with bulk dates of 1922 to 1926, and is arranged chronologically. Topics range widely and include student enrollment, student delinquency, school curricula, and building maintenance. Researchers should be aware that correspondence can also be found in Subseries “IIIb. School files.”
Subseries “IIIb. School files” dates from 1922 to 1932, with bulk dates of 1922 to 1926, and contains correspondence, financial records and invoices, notes, and other administrative records, including documentation regarding facilities and other activities of various schools, but especially the Catholic Girls’ High School. This subseries is arranged chronologically.
Overall, this collection documents the administration of the school district of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from the 1900s to the 1920s. The many schools included in this school district are thus documented from the top administrative record, but the Catholic Girls’ High School is especially well documented. This collection would thus prove valuable for researchers interested in these institutions, the superintendents during this time period (especially McDevitt), or more generally the administration of parochial schools during the early 20th century.
This collection combines accession numbers 1990.143, 1990.145, and an additional accession labeled "Acc. #24" (unknown provenance, found by Shawn).
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
This collection was minimally processed in 2013-2014, as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories. A minimally processed collection is one processed at a less intensive rate than traditionally thought necessary to make a collection ready for use by researchers. When citing sources from this collection, researchers are advised to defer to folder titles provided in the finding aid rather than those provided on the physical folder.
Employing processing strategies outlined in Mark Greene's and Dennis Meissner's 2005 article "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal With Late 20th-Century Collections," the project team tested the limits of minimal processing on collections of all types and ages in 16 Philadelphia area repositories. A primary goal of the project, the team processed at an average rate of 4 hours per linear foot of records, a fraction of the time ordinarily reserved for the arrangement and description of collections. Among other time saving strategies, the project team did not extensively review the content of the collections or complete any preservation work.
In 2015, PAHRC chose to reprocess the collection in order to incorporate a separate accession which should have been included in the initial processing, and also to promote easier access to materials in the collection.
- Bonner, John J., 1890-1945
- Flood, John E., -1922
- McDevitt, Philip R. (Philip Richard), 1858-1935
- O'Hara, Joseph
- Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Amanda Mita and Evan Peugh
- Finding Aid Date
- 2014 March 19
- The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Archives with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.