Josephinum Academy of the Sacred Heart offers a world-class approach to academic excellence combined with a holistic, moral, and spiritual development in a college-preparatory environment at an affordable price to all girls in the heart of Chicago.
In September of 1886, Mother Philomena Schmittdiel, superior of the North American Province of the Sisters of Christian Charity, buried a small statue of St. Joseph in an empty field across the street from St. Aloysius Church. This was the symbol of her intention to buy the property on Oakley Boulevard and build a school for girls that she would call St. Joseph’s Academy. When the building opened to students in September, 1890, a single Latin word, “Josephinum,” which roughly translates as “the house of Joseph,” was carved above the entrance portico.
The name was embraced, and the school was called “Josephinum Academy” until 1923 when Cardinal Mundelein made Josephinum a regional Catholic High School and renamed it "Josephinum High School." The school then readopted the name "Josephinum Academy" in 2000 with the introduction of a middle school, which has since been phased out. Meanwhile, generations of Josephinum students have passed down an affectionate nickname for the school: “The Jo.”
After the Religious of the Sacred Heart assumed the educational direction of Josephinum Academy, with the blessing of the Sisters of Christian Charity, the Network of Sacred Heart Schools promoted Josephinum to full membership on April 11, 2011. The strong partnership between the Sisters of Christian Charity and the Society of the Sacred Heart that harkens back to the orders’ founders, Pauline von Mallinckrodt and Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, lives on through the orders’ collaboration at Josephinum.
In its long history, the school has undergone prosperous growth and devastating decline. Student demographics have also shifted as Josephinum has witnessed the surrounding Wicker Park neighborhood change from predominately German and Scandinavian, to Polish and Ukrainian, to Black and Latino. Yet Josephinum has survived with a commitment to educate and inspire young women in the heart of Chicago, and the school exists today as the city’s longest-standing Catholic high school for girls.
Josephinum originally formed part of a German Catholic “empire” built up by Fr. Aloysius Theile, an ambitious and energetic German-born priest. Fr. Thiele founded St. Aloysius parish on May 30, 1884 in a lightly settled district in the northwestern outskirts of the city. Fr. Thiele urged Mother Philomena to build her academy just east of St. Aloysius on Oakley Boulevard.
The Sisters of Christian Charity were founded in Paderborn, Germany by Pauline von Mallinckrodt in 1849. Mother Pauline was dedicated to the care and education of the poor, and particularly of the blind, but she soon expanded her Sisters’ work into education of the sighted as well.
In its early decades, Josephinum reflected both the ethnicity and the social status of its surroundings. Seventy-six girls enrolled sometime during the first school year of 1890-91. Exactly half were boarders and half were day students. All but two of the boarders were of German birth or descent, as were three-quarters of the day students.
The tuition of $200 per year, a sizeable sum when the average working family earned only about $4,600 annually, ensured that the girls all came from upper-middle or upper-class families. German ancestry and high social status seemed more important than religion in defining the identity of this first class. Only a little more than half the students were Catholic. By 1910, a growing number of students carried Irish and Polish names.
Few stayed at Josephinum for more than a handful of years. Most girls were sent to the school by their upwardly mobile parents “to round out the little academic knowledge that was considered desirable for a young girl” before marriage. The academy was, in short, a finishing school.
This convent school regime, which trained girls to be both housekeepers and gracious ornaments for their husbands, was already becoming outmoded by the turn of the century. Josephinum dropped the domestic course it offered around 1905. The school had already introduced a two-year commercial course in 1900 to train women for white-collar office work. Many of the academic students aimed to become teachers.
In a push by Archbishop George William Mundelein to open up Catholic schools to the working class, Josephinum was persuaded to transform into a regional high school in 1923. It changed its name from Josephinum Academy to Josephinum High School and began to provide a decidedly practical education.
When the descendants of European immigrants joined the exodus to the suburbs after World War II, they left behind many Catholic schools which were faced with the choice to move to follow their constituency or to stay put. Josephinum chose to remain in the same location and construct a new school building. Rather than a decline, it faced burgeoning enrollment in the 1950s, and its finances were sound. The Jo broke ground to construct a new building in 1958, which opened its doors to students the next year. In 1963, Josephinum reached its peak in enrollment with approximately 975 students.
Josephinum had enrolled a few black students from the South and West Sides as early as the 1940s. Most of the black girls at Josephinum came from the West Side, a short bus ride away, but the South Siders faced a long journey on several buses and the train. Neighborhood toughs often pelted them with epithets and snowballs on the way to the Jo. Unfortunately, the white students at school didn’t always make them feel welcome either. For a girl of fourteen, the life of a racial pioneer must have felt lonely.
Later in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement entered its black power phase, the black students at Josephinum became more assertive and less willing to brook insults. On several occasions they staged sit-ins at the cafeteria and actively promoted the cause of black rights.
The Black and Latino share of the Josephinum student body increased steadily throughout the 1970s, reaching 75 percent of the 1979 graduating class and 90 percent of the 1982 class.
Enrollment dropped low enough by 1984 that the school fell into debt that exceeded $100,000. On November 30, 1984 the provincial council of the Sisters of Christian Charity voted to close the Josephinum the next June unless some financial solution could be found.
The announcement of the decision to close was met by students’ stunned silence, then with their tears. Before the day was out, however, the seniors began to organize and the faculty joined in protesting the decision.
Many community members were especially upset because they felt the Jo was very important to the neighborhood’s Latino community. The neighboring public high schools both experienced drop-out rates of 60 to 70 percent, but Josephinum graduated nearly all its students, even providing special counseling and assistance to pregnant girls so they would not drop out.
The provincial council agreed to postpone the closing if the school could raise $500,000 by May 6. Faculty and staff threw themselves into a flurry of fundraising activities they called “Save Our School Campaign” or “SOS.” This involved phone-a-thons, Bingo nights, raffles, and car washes. These efforts fell short of their goal, but they raised enough to cover the operating deficit for the year. The provincial council voted to grant the school a reprieve from closing for the time being.
In order to place Josephinum on solid financial footing for the future, the Sisters of Christian Charity organized a board of directors in 1985 with 15 members to assume “governing, legal and financial responsibility for the school.” The board cut costs to the bone, froze faculty salaries at the previous year’s level and asked the co-principal to take a cut in pay.
After a difficult search, when the Sisters of Christian Charity could not find a nun within their own order to assume the position of principal, Bonnie Kearney, RSCJ, was asked to consider the position. Initially, Bonnie declined. The president of the board at the time, Helen Bruns Ryan, asked a second time, this time recounting the story of Mother Pauline (founder of SCC) receiving guidance and assistance from Saint Madeleine Sophie (founder of RSCJ) to found her order. Sophie founded her order in the face of the turmoil of the French Revolution and religious persecution. Her experience rendered her a tremendous aid to Pauline who also faced persecution in Germany. Helen explained to Bonnie that by serving as principal, she would be fulfilling and carrying on the Society of the Sacred Heart’s promise, made over one hundred years ago, to aid the Sisters of Christian Charity. In response, Bonnie agreed to be principal and went on to do a remarkable job reviving the school with all the fortitude such a major undertaking required.
In 1990, the Religious of the Sacred Heart answered the call of the Board of Directors with the blessing of the Sisters of Christian Charity to assume the educational direction for Josephinum Academy. The school was revitalized under the leadership of three consecutive RSCJ principals and the strong support of Woodlands Academy and the rest of Sacred Heart community in Chicagoland. On November 25, 1996, Cardinal Bernardin approved a unique form of educational alliance, which allowed the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Christian Charity to share in the administration of Josephinum. On April 11, 2011 the membership of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools voted unanimously to promote Josephinum Academy to full membership within the network. The students reacted with a joyful standing ovation.
The Society of the Sacred Heart was founded in France by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat in 1800. The Society’s mission was to make known the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ, and take part in the restoration of Christian life in France through the education of young women of the rich and the poor classes. Today the Society has developed to include more than 200 independent and state schools in over 40 countries.
The strong partnership between the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Christian Charity that harkens back to the orders’ founders, Pauline and Sophie, lives on through the orders’ collaboration in running “the Jo.”
The results of the Sacred Heart education and a dedicated Board of Directors at Josephinum are inspiring. Since 2007, 100 percent of Josephinum’s graduates have been accepted into college, most of them being the first generation in their families to attend. More inspiring, the values* of Sacred Heart Education are finding a home in the hearts of the students, as well as the parents, faculty, administration, staff and board.
Excerpts taken from Edward R. Kantowicz’ narrative found in Josephinum’s Centennial book.