The Nineteenth Century
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. A number of altruistic 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.
The Turn of the Century
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 traveled by train and trolley from all over Philadelphia 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 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. However, 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 low enrollment and morale, these were trying years for the School.