On March 3, 1868, Pope Pius IX, accepting the recommendation of the Bishops of the Second Plenary Council of the United States of America, issued a decree establishing the Diocese of Harrisburg:
“Wherefore, in keeping with the counsel of the aforementioned Cardinals, and exercising Our Full Apostolic Authority, We hereby establish and constitute in the City of Harrisburg a new Episcopal See, under the care of its own Bishop, to be known henceforth as the ‘Diocese of Harrisburg’. We wish this diocese to include the civil counties of Clinton, Centre, Mifflin, Franklin, Cumberland, Adams, York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Northumberland, Columbia, Lebanon, Lancaster, Montour, Union, Snyder, Juniata, Perry and Fulton.”
Shepherding this vast territory was Bishop Jeremiah F. Shanahan, a thirty-four year old priest and seminary rector from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. His new diocese already had a rich history extending back to the seventeenth century when priests from the Diocese of Quebec traveled south on the Susquehanna River. This “highway of missionaries” was the frontier path for evangelizing Native American Indian tribes until the end of the French and Indian War. Rev. John Pierron from Canada was the first priest who can be traced to Pennsylvania in 1673.
In 1704, under English rule, Jesuit priests established a base in Bohemia Manor, Maryland, from which they traveled north and east ministering to scattered Catholics throughout Pennsylvania. This activity, more than one hundred fifty years before the formal establishment of the diocese, is the key to the historical foundation of the oldest parish communities in the diocese today.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, governments of the thirteen original colonies imposed significant legal barriers on Catholics, including prohibitions to public worship, office holding, voting and owning property. Catholics were often seen as represented by a foreign power in the papacy, abettors of British enemies and always potential allies of the Native American populace.
There was a gradual evolution to religious tolerance and acceptance into full participation of citizenship for Catholics because legislation in the colonies did not reflect the ideals espoused by enlightened leaders. The Test Oath required in all colonies from 1693 to 1775 was particularly hostile to Catholics. It is reprinted from the 1895 parish history of St. Patrick, Carlisle, written by Father Henry G. Ganss:
“…do solemnly swear and sincerely profess and testify that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is no transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever, and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary, or any other Saint, and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”
Only with the adoption of Article VI of the Constitution in 1787 were religious tests abolished. In comparison to Maryland and New York, and despite widespread prejudice and intolerance, the Pennsylvania colony, founded by Quaker William Penn, “the champion of liberty”, offered a greater measure of security to Catholics.
Increasingly attracted to Pennsylvania were Irish and German Catholic immigrants known as “redemptioners”. These were individuals who, unable to pay their debts, agreed to bind themselves to a landowner for several years’ labor in return for his assumption of their debts. The dramatic increase of German settlers, in turn, required priests who could administer sacraments in their native language.