Right Reverend Jeremiah F. Shanahan

“Serviam” (I Will Serve)

Jeremiah Francis Shanahan was born on July 13, 1834, at Silver Lake, Susquehanna County, PA to John and Margaret (Donovan) Shanahan.

Right Reverend Jeremiah F. Shanahan
First Bishop of Harrisburg


He was educated at Saint Joseph College, Binghamton, NY, and Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook, Philadelphia. Bishop John Neumann ordained him to the priesthood on July 3, 1859.

Immediately appointed rector of the preparatory seminary at Glen Riddle, he remained until his episcopal appointment to the new diocese. He was consecrated on July 12, 1868, in Philadelphia by Archbishop Frederic Wood. He attended the first Vatican Council in Rome during 1869-1870 and the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1884.

Bishop Shanahan died on September 24, 1886, and was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Harrisburg. Included among his survivors was a younger brother and priest, Father John Walter Shanahan, who became the third bishop of Harrisburg.

By March 3, 1868, when the Diocese of Harrisburg was established, Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan had a Catholic population of 25,000 souls in a ten thousand square mile area with twenty-two priests, forty churches and missions. In the United States, there were approximately one million Catholics and 1,500 priests in twenty-five dioceses. The majority of the population in the country and in this new diocese were overwhelmingly Protestant.

Upon his arrival in Harrisburg, Bishop Shanahan would have seen the majesty of the State Capitol building just two hundred yards from Saint Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral and his residence on State Street. A short walking distance from the steps of Saint Patrick was the shore line of the Susquehanna River. A few blocks away, where the Forum Building now stands, was the German church of Saint Lawrence, founded in 1859.

Within Dauphin County beyond the city of Harrisburg, only Lykens had a parish church. Steelton residents traveled to Saint Patrick’s, while Middletown residents attended Mass at Saint Peter, Elizabethtown. In 1868, Perry, Juniata and Snyder Counties had no chapels or missions. In York, Saint Patrick’s had been joined by the new German parish of Saint Mary’s, dedicated by Bishop John Neumann in 1852.

By 1868, Adams County, with several concentrations of Catholic communities, had established parishes beyond the mother church of Conewago in Abbottstown, Bonneauville, Littlestown, Hanover, Gettysburg and New Oxford.

As the history of the newly created diocese began, the largest population of Catholics resided in Lancaster County. The city of Lancaster had Old St. Mary’s and the German parish of St. Joseph, established in 1849. In addition to Quarryville and Elizabethtown, Columbia had two parishes – St. Peter and Holy Trinity. Among these parishes in Lancaster County, however, there were only two resident pastors. One was the venerable figure of Father Bernard Keenan, whose life and ministry impact greatly on both Lancaster’s Catholic and local history.

In Franklin County, the early parishes in Chambersburg and Doylesburg had been joined by Buchanan Valley and Fairfield.

When established in 1868, the diocese also included Fulton, Centre and Clinton counties. In these three counties, there were only two resident pastors. One was Father Thomas McGovern in Bellefonte, who would later become the second bishop of the diocese. In Montour County, Danville had been founded, but in 1868, it was quite small compared to its mother church, Saint Joseph in Milton.

In the heart of the anthracite coal region, the area of Northumberland was just on the threshold of its large and rapid growth period. In 1866, Saint Edward, Shamokin, had received its first resident pastor, Father John J. Koch. He was an outstanding priest whose life and ministry is historically significant for the diocese because of his ministries in the northern areas of Milton, Shamokin, Trevorton, Locust Gap and missions.

In beginning his administration, Bishop Shanahan had several immediate needs to address: priests, finances and education. As related by the Vicar General, Monsignor Hassett, in 1918, Bishop Shanahan had an immediate need for “…securing a greater number of priests, … without laborers, it was evident, his extensive vineyard could not properly be cultivated.”

Towards this effort, Bishop Shanahan opened Sylvan Heights Seminary in Harrisburg during October 1883. It was successfully directed by Father Massimo Cassini, until severely limited resources necessitated its closing in 1888. Numbers of diocesan clergy continued to increase, however, and Bishop Shanahan was able to establish many new parishes.

Through the late nineteenth century, the Diocese of Harrisburg could still be accurately described as “mission territory” in a country with 12 million Catholics among 55 dioceses. The Church had become an immigrant church very much involved in the labor movement and interests of the working class.

In eighteen counties of the diocese, the nineteen parishes plus thirty-four missions and stations were mostly small and distantly located from one another. Each one carried a debt, and many had difficulty meeting the annual interest payment. By appealing to the larger parishes of his former diocese in Philadelphia, Bishop Shanahan was able to raise funds to assist his struggling churches .

The religious training of children was another important need addressed by the first bishop. In this pioneer age, priests and bishops alike recognized the need for children of immigrant families to receive religious instruction reflecting the religious tenets of their forefathers. The future of the Church was, likewise, not to be imperiled through indifference and erosion of the faith in a new culture.

Bishop Shanahan found seven parish schools in existence when he came to Harrisburg. During the next eighteen years, the number of parish schools grew to twenty-nine with 4,500 Catholic school children from a Catholic population of 35,000. It was during this time that the excellent quality of Catholic education was established with the staffing of parish schools by orders of religious sisters.

During his episcopacy, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, arrived to teach in the schools. Historically, only the Sisters of Charity served in the diocese earlier. They operated a school and hospital in Harrisburg for several years beginning in 1828.