Hundreds of John W. Hallahan students walked out of class on Friday to protest plans to close the Catholic girls’ high school by the end of the academic year.

Donning red Mickey Mouse headbands in a nod to their mascot, and holding signs that read “No faith in Hallahan means no faith in us” and “Save our home,” the group marched from the school at 19th and Wood Streets to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offices near 17th and Race. They knelt in front of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, loudly reciting the Hail Mary and Our Father in unison. They were praying for an extra special intention: the future of the country’s first all-girls’ Catholic diocesan high school.

“Our faith can move mountains,“ board member Paula Sahm told the crowd. The decision makers in the archdiocese “don’t know our God is bigger than they are. We are now going to do something that perhaps they should have done. We are going to go into prayer.”

The Center City demonstration came a day after archdiocesan officials announced that Hallahan, along with Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, would close by the end of the 2020-21 school year due to declining enrollment and increasing requests for tuition assistance at both schools. Hallahan is currently operating at 36% capacity with fewer than 360 students.

The Hallahan and McDevitt news comes on the heels of an announcement that Jenkintown’s Saint Basil Academy will also close at the end of the year. That school is run by the Ukrainian Catholic Sisters of Saint Basil the Great.

“Without painful, but necessary action at this juncture, declining enrollment would have caused tuition increases to accelerate rapidly in order to cover school operating expenses and prohibited these schools from offering an affordable educational experience without incurring massive deficits,” the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said Thursday in a statement.

Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez said he knew the decision would “weigh heavily on every member of the Hallahan and McDevitt school communities. I share in that grief.”

Students from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School kneel on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to recite the Hail Mary and Lord's Prayer as part of a protest over the closing of their school by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Jonathan Wilson
Students from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School kneel on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to recite the Hail Mary and Lord's Prayer as part of a protest over the closing of their school by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

For Hallahan students, faculty, and alumni, the weight of that grief was on full display Friday morning as the mass of teenage girls marched across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. As police officers temporarily stopped traffic, some held up their cell phones to take videos. One turned his car’s siren on as they parked outside the basilica, prompting the students to reply with excited shouts of gratitude.

After kneeling in prayer, they made their way across the street to Logan Square. One girl held a large speaker overhead, and the group raised their voices through face masks to sing songs such as “Lean on Me” and Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”

They talked about how they were part of a sisterhood, one that mirrored the racial and ethnic diversity of the city and was bonded by faith. They applauded their teachers and staff, giving a special shout-out to a beloved school maintenance worker named Leonard Hudson, who stood off to the side and snapped cell phone photos of the students’ demonstration.

Peering out from a Mickey Mouse costume, Faith Scally along with Caitin Simmieon (holding a portable speaker) lead students from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School in singing Bill Withers' classic "Lean On Me."
Jonathan Wilson
Peering out from a Mickey Mouse costume, Faith Scally along with Caitin Simmieon (holding a portable speaker) lead students from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School in singing Bill Withers' classic "Lean On Me."

Behind them, the Swann Memorial Fountain sat empty; its water has been drained for the winter. It is the same fountain that for 50 years Hallahan students have jumped into to celebrate the end of the school year.

As they played “We’re All in This Together,” the catchy tune from the popular Disney Channel movie High School Musical, the teenagers ran through the empty fountain. They gathered around the large green sculpture at its center, held their handmade signs high in the air, and, as alumni looked on from the grass, chanted, “Save our school! Save our school!”