On March 3, 1868, Pope Pius IX, accepting the recommendation of the Bishops of the Second Plenary Council of “the United States of North America” and having consulted the Cardinals of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, decreed:
“Wherefore, in keeping with the counsel of the afore-mentioned 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.”
The territory of the new diocese had a rich history extending back more than two hundred years to the seventeenth century. Jesuit missionaries under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Quebec traveled south on the Susquehanna River, leaving evidence of their priestly activities. Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of London traveled north on the same river, from Maryland, and preached the Gospel to Native Americans.
After the Revolutionary War, Father John Carroll was appointed superior of the American missions in 1784. In 1790, Baltimore was established as the first U.S. diocese and Father Carroll was consecrated the first bishop. His diocese included the original thirteen colonies until the dioceses of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were established in 1808.
From 1808 until 1868 the territory of the Diocese of Harrisburg was part of the Diocese of Philadelphia. From 1852 to 1860 Saint John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, visited missions and parishes in the area.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, Conewago, was established in 1730 and would become the oldest parish in the Diocese. In 1787, the stone church was erected and was the first church in the United Stated to be named for the Sacred Heart. In 1975 it was named a National Historic Site.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, founded in 1809 and blessed in 1843, became the first church in America dedicated to Mary under this title. In 1863, Saint Francis Xavier Church, Gettysburg, served as a hospital during the Civil War. The first Polish parish in Pennsylvania, Saint Stanislaus in Shamokin, was founded in 1872 in the Diocese. In 1901, Saint Katharine’s Hall in Carlisle was opened by Mother Katharine Drexel for the instruction of African and Native American children. The site is currently the rectory for Saint Patrick’s Parish. In 1948, Saint Catherine Labouré Parish was established in Harrisburg, making it the first parish in the world dedicated to this Miraculous Medal.
The Diocese continued to change and on July 1, 1995, after a three-year process, 38 parishes were merged into 13 new parishes.
On June 24, 2003, Iglesia Católica San Juan Bautista, was established. Originally opened in 1982, it became a quasi-parish in 1998 and achieved full parish status in 2003. San Juan Bautista was the first Hispanic parish in the Diocese. In 2012, Saint Peter Son Korean Catholic Church was established, making it the newest parish of the Diocese and our first Asian parish.
The Diocese of Harrisburg has parishes named for three North American saints: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Mechanicsburg; Saint John Neumann Parish, Lancaster; and Saint Katharine Drexel Parish, Mechanicsburg.
The Diocese is also home to two minor basilicas. In 1962, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church (the Conewago Chapel) in McSherrystown was elevated to the rank of minor basilica by Pope John XXIII. In 1989, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, St. Pope John Paul II declared the Motherhouse Chapel of the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Danville to be a minor basilica, the only one in the world dedicated to the co-patrons of Europe.
The Diocese of Harrisburg serves close to 245,000 Catholics in 89 parishes and seven missions, throughout 15 counties of central Pennsylvania.
From 1868 to the present, 11 bishops have led the Diocese by addressing the spiritual needs of their own generation, while looking to the future needs of the Church.
- Bishop Jeremiah F. Shanahan: 1868-1886
- Bishop Thomas McGovern: 1888-1898
- Bishop John W. Shanahan: 1899-1916
- Bishop Philip R. McDevitt: 1916-1935
- Bishop George L. Leech: 1936-1971
- Bishop Joseph T. Daley: 1971-1983
- Bishop William H. Keeler: 1984-1989
- Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo: 1990-2004
- Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades: 2004-2010
- Bishop Joseph P. McFadden: 2010-2013
- Bishop Ronald W. Gainer: 2014-Present