The Growth of Catholicism in Our Area

Catholicism in what is now the Diocese of Harrisburg traces its beginning to the 1720s when Jesuit missionaries established the “Conewago Mission” (today the site of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) in what is today Adams County. From there Catholic settlements developed as the faith spread east, west, and north throughout south central Pennsylvania.


In response to these developments, Father Joseph Greaton, a Jesuit, was given charge of the entire Pennsylvania mission in 1720. From old Saint Joseph’s Chapel in Philadelphia, Father Greaton was the first priest to travel the mission route to Conewago in Adams County.

From the home of Robert Owings in Conewago, Father Greaton offered Mass secretly as early as 1721, but the founding date for the parish is 1730. By 1741, a log chapel was completed by Father William Wappeler, another German Jesuit.

Enlarged in 1768, Conewago chapel became the headquarters of the Saint Francis Regis mission circuit extending from Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna River and including all of western Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In this way, Conewago became the gateway to our Catholic heritage. While many early Jesuit missionary records have been lost, the sacramental registers for Conewago are the oldest sources of Catholic genealogy in the diocese.

Among the early Jesuit priests, Father James Pellentz was outstanding. For more than forty years, he served Conewago and Lancaster missions with the charity and courage required of frontier priests. He served as Vicar General to Bishop John Carroll and was one of the directors who founded Georgetown College. Father Pellentz is buried in the parish cemetery with the epitaph “…a stranger in a strange land, he erected this the temple of God, and with zeal and piety made it the object of his life to gather men within the Church.”

In 1787, when Father Pellentz, the resident pastor, completed a new stone church, Conewago was the first church in North America named for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A charming tradition connected with the building of the chapel is that all neighbors, Catholics and Protestants together, used their wagons to haul the stone from East Berlin. They walked beside their teams with hats off because the stone was to be used “for a house of God”.

By 1790, when John Carroll became the Bishop of Baltimore in the new country’s first diocese, Conewago was a flourishing parish with over a thousand members. Today the edifice is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it remains the oldest stone church in use in the United States.

Saint Patrick, Carlisle

Continuing west and south of Harrisburg, across the Susquehanna River, are Cumberland and Franklin counties. In these frontier areas were several strongholds of Catholic faith, particularly Carlisle, Doylesburg and Chambersburg. Their earliest sacramental records are important to Catholic genealogists, especially in tracing ancestors migrating to the West during the mid- nineteenth century.

Irish and German Catholics were in the Carlisle area as early as 1737 and may have been part of the mission work of Father Wappeler from Lancaster. From the 1770’s, Conewago records include Saint Patrick, Carlisle, as a mission until the parish was established in 1779. An interesting historical note for Carlisle recounts the urgent need for German priests in 1776. After the capture of Trenton on Christmas Day during the Revolutionary War, Hessians were sent to Carlisle to build a military barracks. When offered the opportunity to return to their home country, many, including some Catholics, decided to remain in Carlisle.

Under the supervision of Father deBarth from Conewago, a small brick church was constructed in 1806. During this time, his assistants were Father “Prince” Demetrius Gallitzin and Father Michael Egan. In a later period, Saint Patrick, Carlisle, had a mission established for both Native American and Black children. This was founded by Mother (now Saint) Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Clusters of Catholics also settled in historic Doylesburg, Path Valley and Amberson Valley by 1737. Doylesburg was founded by Thomas Doyle, a Catholic whose family members were prominent in the Revolutionary War. It was identified as a Conewago mission in 1790, when Mass was said in a private home in Path Valley. Although located in the wilderness, a log church built in 1802, was visited four times by Bishop Francis P. Kenrick of Philadelphia between 1832 and 1849.

Bishop John Neumann, Bishop Kenrick’s successor, returned in 1852 to dedicate a new church built on land from the original Doyle family. Bishop Neumann continued his arduous travel throughout the most isolated parts of the extended Diocese of Philadelphia, preaching, dedicating churches and administering sacraments. Many parishes in the diocese have sacramental registers signed by Bishop Neumann, who was declared a saint in 1977 by Pope Paul VI.

Early Chambersburg Catholics were served by Father Dennis Cahill of Hagerstown, MD, as early as 1786. In 1792, a log building was erected and named “Christ’s Church”. In 1795, these Catholics were attended by “Prince” Gallitzin traveling on horseback from Conewago into Huntingdon. In the parish cemetery are buried the parents of John Hughes, Archbishop of New York, who built Saint Patrick Cathedral, NY, and who also served as advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War years.

St. Peter’s, Elizabethtown

The late eighteenth century was a transition time from the German Jesuit mission priests to secular and, later, diocesan clergy. This was also a period when permanent churches were built to replace the temporary worship sites of the circuit missionaries. Most representative of these outstanding priests was Father Louis deBarth, who fled the French Revolution in 1791 and was assigned to the Lancaster mission in 1795. During a visit to Elizabethtown in 1798, Bishop John Carroll urged Father deBarth to build a permanent church for the congregation, which had been established almost fifty years earlier by Father Farmer. This was Saint Peter’s Church, which was dedicated in 1799 and remained the parish worship site for 200 years.

For Lancaster County, the parish registers of Saint Peter’s, Elizabethtown, are another vital source of Catholic heritage and genealogy. In addition to sacramental entries, its first volume contains a covenant written in German and signed by founding parishioners. This decree pledged continuing loyalty to their pastor and their bishop. It remains an important document in the history of the Catholic Church in America. It is a clear contrast to challenges to episcopal authority caused by “trusteeism” in several Catholic churches, especially Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.

Father deBarth’s life was one of tireless devotion and service to God. By horseback from Lancaster, he continued to travel the missionary circuit into Sunbury, Chillisquaque and Northumberland. He built the first permanent churches for Saint Patrick, Carlisle; Saint Mary’s, Lebanon; and Saint Patrick, York. He declined appointment as bishop in order to remain a pastor at Conewago, although he did serve as vicar general to Bishop Michael Egan and as administrator to the Diocese of Philadelphia upon the death of Bishop Egan. (Interestingly, Bishop Egan, as a young Franciscan priest from Ireland had assisted Father deBarth in Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Chillisquaque and Lewisburg.)

Father Bernard Keenan was another outstanding priest who served as pastor of “Old Saint Mary’s”, Lancaster, from 1823 until his death in 1877 at age 98. He was the nephew of Bishop Henry Conwell of Philadelphia, who dedicated the new parish of Saint Patrick, Harrisburg, in 1827.

Saint Patrick Cathedral, Harrisburg

As in Conewago and Lancaster, the earliest Catholic history for the immediate Harrisburg area is linked to Jesuit missionary efforts. It is believed that Father Wappeler may have used the Harris Ferry in traveling the Lancaster circuit from Middletown and Elizabethtown to Carlisle.

Any records which may have documented this period from 1741 to 1749 were destroyed in the 1760 fire of the Lancaster chapel. By 1791, however, there are records showing that Father William Elling attended Harris Ferry once a month as a mission of Saint Mary’s, Lancaster.

Conewago records indicate that Harrisburg was a small mission in 1806, with Mass being said in a private home among Catholics in the Alison Hill section. A chapel was built in 1813 on a site later known as Sylvan Heights. The original lot purchase was made by Father Michael Byrne, pastor of Saint Mary’s, Lancaster.

The impetus for significant growth of the Catholic community in Harrisburg came later, between 1817 and 1822, with the arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants. They were hired laborers for the building of the canal system in Pennsylvania, especially along the Susquehanna River northward.

The history of Saint Patrick, Harrisburg, that relates to the missionary work of the early priests continues from Lewistown, where Father Patrick Leavy purchased a lot for a church building in Harrisburg in 1824. Following the establishment of Saint Patrick as a parish in 1826, a new church was built by Father Michael Curren and dedicated in 1827. The name of Saint Patrick was selected in recognition of the Irish workers who made financial sacrifices for the construction of this church.

When the diocese was founded in 1868, this parish church in Harrisburg became the pro-Cathedral. In 1907, construction on a new Cathedral of Saint Patrick was completed on the site of the old pro-Cathedral, which had been dismantled and rebuilt as the church in Burnham.

The oldest sacramental register for Saint Patrick’s includes an 1828 list of Irish Catholics buried in the Irish Cemetery in Liverpool, Perry County. Additional mission stations attended by priests from Saint Patrick, Harrisburg, included Duncannon, Newport and Millerstown.

Beyond the city limits of Harrisburg, the Catholics of Steelton were served as a mission of the Cathedral. Its historical identity, however, developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the new wave of European immigration. The first parish established in Steelton was Saint James in 1878. As pastor, Father Gilbert Benton was known for his priestly charity and benevolence to all ethnic groups, especially the newest arrivals to the community.

With the approval of Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan, Father Benton encouraged each ethnic group to form its own religious society within the parish. When numbers and finances were sufficient, new parishes were established for Croations, Slovenes, Italians, Germans and Hungarians.

This process was repeated in the Shamokin and Mount Carmel areas during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when immigration from southern and eastern Europe increased dramatically.

Old St. Mary’s, Lancaster

To the east, in Lancaster County, an established Catholic community served by the Jesuit mission circuit also existed. It is believed that Father Greaton stopped in Lancaster on his way from Philadelphia through Goshenhoppen to Conewago. If this is certain, it is likely that a Mass house also existed here prior to the building of the first chapel by Father Wappeler in 1742.

Historic “Old St. Mary’s” in Lancaster city was founded in 1741 as the mission of Saint John Nepomucene. Its first chapel was built by Father Wappeler the following year. In 1752, another Jesuit, Father Ferdinand Farmer was assigned to Lancaster for three years. This famous priest and patriot traveled the mission circuit and established the Assumption B.V.M. chapel in Donegal. The site was the Henry Eckenroth farm and the beginning of the Elizabethtown Catholic community.

Assumption B.V.M. Church, Lancaster, is the mother church for the early missions in Elizabethtown, Lebanon, Little Britain, Doe Run, Elizabeth Furnace and Sunbury. Although its earliest sacramental records were lost in a 1760 arson fire, existing registers are a vital source of Catholic genealogy for the southeastern parts of the diocese.

During colonial times, new settlers did not have the financial means to support missionary priests. Sir John James, an English convert to Catholicism, established an endowment for the support of missionaries in Pennsylvania. This James Fund was administered by the Vicar Apostolic of London for the benefit of the German Jesuits. These funds were specifically dispersed through Saint Mary’s parish, Lancaster.

The benefit of the James Fund to the development of Catholicism in the present diocese is significant. These funds encouraged more German Jesuits to the mission fields within the present diocesan territory, allowing a strong Catholic faith to develop in a largely non-Catholic area. The later priests included Fathers Theodore Schneider, Matthias Manners, Robert Molyneaux and Luke Geissler. They usually traveled alone during the night, on foot or on horseback. For additional protection, Catholic priests were often attired as Quakers, physicians or teachers.

Saint Mary’s, Lebanon
St. Mary's Lebanon, PA

The first settlers of the Lebanon area of the diocese were Germans who traveled west from Philadelphia along the Tulpehocken Trail. This trail was also the highway of Catholic missionaries from Philadelphia and Goshenhoppen.

It is possible that a mission existed in the early 1700’s, which later became Assumption BVM Church in Lebanon, but no records exist. If it did exist, the site most likely was a log chapel at Kimmerlings, north of Lebanon where a Catholic cemetery was located. More certain, however, is Catholic activity evidenced in the sacramental records of Father Theodore Schneider, S.J., who followed the Tulpehocken trail west to Lebanon beginning in 1741.

At the turn of this century, eastern European Catholic immigrants arrived in Lebanon. To former Saints Cyril and Methodius came Slovak, Croatians and Polish Catholics and to Saint Gertrude came Germans, Hungarians and Serbs.

Throughout these areas, Catholicism grew over a period of almost three hundred years. From the vast and enduring foundation of the Jesuit missionary labors developed the history and heritage of the diocese. Pioneer priests gathered clusters of Catholic settlers into thriving parishes in Conewago, Lancaster, Elizabethtown and Carlisle, all before 1789 and the establishment of Baltimore as the first diocese in the United States. When John Carroll became the first Bishop of Baltimore, only two other dioceses existed on this continent – the Diocese of Quebec and the Diocese of Havana.

In 1808, the history of the Harrisburg diocese shifts to the Diocese of Philadelphia, one of four new dioceses created from Baltimore. With diaries and journals, it is possible to follow the arduous paths traveled by Philadelphia bishops Francis P. Kenrick and John Neumann (later Saint) in ministering to the increasing numbers of Catholics in central Pennsylvania.

Saint Joseph, Milton 1844

The diocesan history for upper Dauphin County through Juniata and Mifflin Counties is related to the Cathedral missions from Harrisburg and the parish history of Lewistown from 1830. Both were heavily influenced by the building of the Pennsylvania canal system and Irish immigrant workers previously described.

The historical center for Union, Snyder, Montour and large portions of Northumberland and Columbia counties is Saint Joseph, Milton, founded in 1805. Despite earlier Catholic activity here, only Milton had an established mission.

In 1774, Father Robert Molyneau, who served with Father Farmer in Philadelphia, purchased a lot in Northumberland presumably for a church in Sunbury. It was not built, but Father Molyneau did travel the missions from Philadelphia and was the first priest known to have ministered to Catholic settlers in this area. (By this time, Father Farmer had departed the Lancaster missions and was assigned to Philadelphia. From this mission headquarters, he traveled throughout New Jersey and New York, not central Pennsylvania.)

Father Molyneau was a priest of many accomplishments. Historically, Philadelphia, not Baltimore, was the center of Catholicism in America prior to the American Revolution. Here Father Molyneau edited devotional and prayer books which were used in traditional faith practices until revisions were adopted in 1884 by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. Each Sunday after Mass, children recited Molyneau’s edition of the catechism, better known as the “Carroll catechism”. Eventually, Father Molyneau became president of Georgetown College and first superior of the restored Jesuits following their suppression.

In 1776, land known as Ech Harbour in Northumberland was purchased for the “use and benefit of Roman Catholics who may wish to worship”, but, again, no church was built. From the Lancaster mission, Father deBarth’s favorite ministry was understood to be travel by horseback to the mission areas of Sunbury and the West Branch settlement of Chillisquaque.

In response to an appeal by German and Irish Catholics, Bishop John Carroll sent a Franciscan priest, Father Patrick Lonergan, O.F.M., during the late 1790’s.

When, in 1805, a church was built in Milton, it was the only church in the entire northern region. Within the diocese, the parishes of Conewago, Lancaster, Elizabethtown, York, Carlisle, Chambersburg and Doylesburg are older. From the time of its establishment, Milton’s parish territory was extremely large and included five chapels and fifteen stations. Saint Joseph is the mother church for Sunbury, Danville, Bloomsburg, Berwick, Lewisburg, Shamokin, Trevorton and Selinsgrove. Its historical significance compounds the loss of irreplaceable sacramental records during a catastrophic fire which destroyed the church in 1880.

Among the legendary priests who served the northern area are Monsignor John J. Koch and Father Michael Sheridan.

St Ignatius, Centralia

The Mount Carmel area of the diocese comprises parts of Northumberland and Columbia Counties, including the towns of Mount Carmel, Kulpmont, Marion Heights, Locust Gap, Locust Dale and Centralia. Catholic families of various nationalities settled in Mount Carmel because of the anthracite coal industry.

The first Catholics of Mount Carmel attended Mass by walking or traveling by carriage to Ashland (outside of diocese) or Saint Joseph, Locust Gap. In 1866, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was established as a mission of Saint Edward, Shamokin, becoming the mother church for Mount Carmel parishes. As described for Saint James, Steelton, the mother church welcomed each new immigrant group until there were sufficient numbers to form a separate parish.

Holy Cross School, Mount Carmel

Saint Joseph’s, Mount Carmel, parish was founded for Polish-speaking people in 1878; Saint John the Baptist for Slovaks and Holy Cross for Lithuanians in 1892; Our Mother of Consolation for Polish in 1896; Saint Peter for Italians in 1905 (with a later mission of St. Paul, Atlas) and Saint Casimir, Kulpmont, for Polish in 1914.

In 1904, Father Anthony Staniukynas was appointed pastor of Holy Cross parish. His plans for a Catholic school for the Lithuanian children resulted in Bishop John W. Shanahan petitioning Rome to found the Lithuanian order of Sisters of Saint Casimir. On October 7, 1907, the motherhouse was established in Mount Carmel, and the sisters proceeded to open the first Lithuanian Catholic school in America.

Saint Stanislaus, Shamokin

Shamokin was a settlement through which missionaries passed in reaching Milton missions. When founded in 1836, Saint Edward’s, Shamokin, served mostly German and Irish Catholics, but the later patterns of immigration resulted in the following parishes: Saint Stanislaus for Polish in 1872; Assumption BVM for Slovaks in 1891; Saint Michael for Lithuanians in 1894 and Saint Stephen for Polish in 1898. Shamokin was also the location of the first Catholic high school in the diocese.

To the south, York was part of Lancaster County in 1741, when German Catholic immigrants on the Codorus Creek were visited by Father William Wappeler from Lancaster. The southern part of York County was involved in land disputes between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and this continued until the Mason-Dixon line was drawn in 1768. By 1742, Catholics had a “little wooden church” for celebration of Mass that was attended by Jesuit missionaries from Conewago, most likely Father Matthias Manners.

Although the parish of Saint Patrick, York, was founded in 1741, it was not until 1775 and 1776 that Joseph Schmidt purchased the site for a permanent church. The cornerstone of the first church was laid in 1810 by Father deBarth of Conewago.