In 1876, the land that is now St. Joe’s Prep was open country that was near the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, which celebrated the country’s 100th year of independence. For the Centennial Exposition, the old wooden bridge at Girard Avenue was replaced with a new steel one, which subsequently led to the development of the Girard Area. Around this time, the Jesuits of the Maryland Province were making plans for another parish in a part of the city more conducive to operating a college. The Girard Area seemed like a natural place because it was a blossoming suburb with Girard College, Eastern State Prison, a hospital, and a reservoir. Fr. Barbelin found an undeveloped block between 17th and 18th Streets and bounded on north and south by Thompson and Stiles Streets. Because of its high water table no one else had built there. While the owner wanted an inflated price of $60,000 he eventually settled for $45,000, and the transaction was completed on November 20, 1866.
In 1868, just as the existing College at Willings Alley was fading to 60 students, Rev. Burchard Villiger, S.J. took up residence in North Philadelphia to begin the building of a parish, a lower school and a college off of Girard Avenue.
The original building housed a chapel and classrooms in the basement and a Jesuit residence on the back. The basement was completed in 1873 and grade school classes as well as Greek and Latin constituted what was called the Preparatory department of St. Joseph’s College. At first the parish was called New St. Joseph’s, but this was very confusing, so the name was changed to Holy Family Church.
This complex was no sooner completed in 1879 than work began on what would later be called the Church of the Gesu. Fr. Villiger’s wisdom was not always apparent as the Gesu Church was a massive undertaking for a new parish, burdened with debt from the land purchase and the $30,000 for the Stiles Street building. A shortage of funds as well as design and construction problems slowed its completion. Francis Drexel, the father of St. Katherine Drexel, died in 1885 leaving Saint Joseph’s College $72,000, relieving the “College” of one problem. On Oct 8, 1888, Fr. Villiger celebrated his 50th anniversary in the Society of Jesus in the midst of pomp and scaffolds in the new Gesu Church. This great new church did not command the view of Girard Avenue that it does today. St. Matthews Episcopal church occupied the corner of 18th and Girard. The original interior of the church was painted white, presumably for reasons of cost, light and taste.