The IHM congregation was founded in Monroe, Michigan in 1845. Thirteen years later it was ready to branch out. The first IHM mission in Pennsylvania, St. Joseph School, was established in August, 1858 in Choconut Township, Susquehanna County. That year, five IHM sisters replaced the Sisters of the Holy Cross who had originally staffed the school. Known as St. Joseph Academy, the school quickly earned a reputation of excellence. The following year, in March of 1859, Bishop Neumann of Philadelphia requested sisters for a school in Reading, Pennsylvania. St. Peter Parish, serving the German immigrant Catholics of the area, had purchased a large building on South Fifth Street and the parish community was anxious to have a school. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters arrived in July, 1859 and on September 2nd, 1859 Bishop John Neumann (now St. John Neumann) celebrated the first Mass in the chapel and blessed the building on Fifth St. that was to house the first convent, novitiate, boarding school and academy. On September 5th, a “select school” for girls opened in that building and on September 12th, a Girls’ Parochial School began at 5th and Spruce Streets. Additionally, a parish school for boys opened in the basement of the church at St. Peter’s. Classrooms in the three schools filled steadily and, a decade later, each school needed more classrooms. Therefore, in 1872, the Motherhouse, the Novitiate and the Academy of the Immaculate Heart (later known as Villa Maria Academy) moved to West Chester, PA. As the three branches of the IHM’s grew, the eastern branch became known as the West Chester IHM’s.
By the beginning of the 20th century in Reading, there was an urgent need for a Catholic secondary school. In order to meet the advanced academic needs of the Reading high school-age population, St. Peter High School was founded in 1911 and in 1914, a two-year commercial course began at the new Reading Catholic High School. By 1930, the Pennsylvania Department of the Commonwealth accredited Reading Catholic High School as a first-class high school.
The 1940’s saw the migration of Latino peoples into the Reading area; the 50’s and 60’s saw a significant increase in enrollment of Hispanics at St. Peter School. Increased enrollment in both grade school and high school created the need for additional classroom space. Therefore, the Allentown Diocese (established in 1961 from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) embarked upon a major building campaign. In 1964 Holy Name High School replaced Reading Catholic High School. The final graduation class from Reading Catholic High School was on June 4, 1964. St. Peter School continues to serve the needs of students from kindergarten through grade eight.
The present student body, as of September 2003, at St. Peter School represents children from five continents and 26 countries. Continuing in its original tradition, the parish serves an immigrant population, presently ministering to the Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian and Dominican Republic peoples.
As the first motherhouse, novitiate and school, the West Chester IHM’s affectionately refer to St. Peter’s as “the cradle of the community.” In addition to the school and convent, the community has 15 of its pioneer IHM sisters buried in St. Peter Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the city of Reading. Many saintly sisters who have gone before us watered the IHM Alphonsian roots. IHM community history recalls that it was the invitation of another saint (John Neumann) that established the Reading foundation. Later, as the motherhouse relocated, the new branch became known as the West Chester and now the Immaculata IHM’s. Regarding each sisters’ assigned mission, they are all “Faithful Witnesses” to the people of God and daughters of the church dedicated to Mary.