History of the Academy of Notre Dame
Building on our legacy for a future of promise and possibilities.
"Notre Dame’s success centers on its continued ability to tap into its rich legacy, celebrate its present, and plan for 21st century future challenges and opportunities, always celebrating the spirit of Saint Julie and her commitment to teach students what they need to know for life."
Dr. Judith A. Dwyer, President
In 1854, Bishop John Neumann invited the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to open a school for girls in Philadelphia.
On October 15, 1856, Sister Superior Louise and five sisters opened the first “academy” in the Parish of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, and as enrollment grew, moved to St. Joseph’s College.
In 1860, a new and energetic Sister joined the Academy. Sister Superior Julia was determined to find a more favorable location for her students and secured a property in West Rittenhouse Square
In 1867, The Notre Dame convent and Academy of Notre Dame de Namur opens.
The Academy of Notre Dame, fondly referred to as “The Square,” educated generations of Philadelphia’s girls and boys — teaching them, in the words of Saint Julie, founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, “what they need to know for life.” In 1883, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was refurbished in the convent garden and was a beloved shrine for the Sisters, the students, and those seeking healing.
In the 1940’s, space constraints began to limit the school’s growth and Sister Rosalia, the Provincial, accepted Cardinal Dougherty’s suggestion that she purchase the Geist Estate in Villanova to house the high school division.
Sisters and students arrived at the Mansion in January, 1944. Notre Dame operated at two locations until 1967 when Rittenhouse Square finally closed. The Mansion became the much-loved symbol of the Academy, home to the Sisters and a gathering place for classes, chapel, and special events for the students.
During the 1950’s, the Academy included an elementary and secondary school for girls and boys. As enrollment grew, the Academy focused on the education of young women from grades seven to twelve. In 1975, sixth grade was introduced.
In the 1960’s, Cuvilly Hall (formerly known as Loretto Hall) was built to meet the needs of the growing student population. The Academy instituted an honor code, which continues to guide our students today.
From 1970 until 2007, the Academy was guided by the vision of Sister Regina. During her tenure, she established a Board of Trustees and guided a capital campaign to build St. Julie Hall, which opened in 1985. The additions of a Religion Center, computer labs, and construction of the Josephine Connelly Arts Center, which opened in 2000, ensured that the Academy provided students with the highest-quality education.
In 2006, Notre Dame became an independent educational institution and the Mansion and school property were purchased from the Sisters of Notre Dame. As an independent school, affiliated with the Sisters of Notre Dame, a new tradition of lay leadership began. In 2007, Notre Dame once again responded to the need to provide our students with a state-of-the-art learning environment. Construction of the Harron Building, with new classrooms and a new gymnasium, was completed.
In March 2013, Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees identified priorities for campus improvements and approved the launch of a capital campaign, “Our Time to Inspire.” In 2014, the Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Judith Dwyer as the second lay President of the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur. Construction of two standard-setting athletic fields was completed, along with upgrades to the school’s track and softball field. Student athletes now compete on one of the area’s finest lacrosse, soccer, and field hockey fields. At the same time, the Academy renovated and upgraded the Launfal Fieldhouse.
In April 2019, the Academy celebrated the dedication and blessing of The Riley Center for STEM Education. The 30,000 square foot building includes technology enabled active learning (TEAL) environments that include eight science laboratories, three lab prep rooms, eight mathematics classrooms, a design thinking and entrepreneurship classroom and labs dedicated to design and innovation, robotics and coding. The Riley Center forms the cornerstone of Notre Dame’s five-year strategic vision to create a state-of-the-art, 21st century learning environment on the Academy’s 19th century Villanova estate.