Although the Diocese of Harrisburg encompasses the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and is usually associated with it, the rich mosaic of peoples who make up the diocese did not really develop until after the Civil War. From the Colonial period until the time of the Civil War the Catholic population drew mainly from the Irish and Germans.
If the period from Colonial times to the Civil War belong to the Irish and the Germans, and if the period from post-Civil War to World War 1 belonged to the East and Southern Europeans, the period from the post-World War II to the present belongs to the African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.
From Colonial days the Irish who settled in what is now the Diocese of Harrisburg were mainly Protestant Scots Irish; Catholics from the southern counties of Ireland were also present in great numbers. However, because they were Catholic, they experienced considerable prejudice and discrimination. Nevertheless, because these Irish Catholics came to this country speaking the English language, they had an advantage over the non-English-speaking Catholic immigrants and were able to establish themselves and assimilate more quickly. Thus, they often claimed first place among the Catholic population. Not surprising, then, four early parishes were dedicated to Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, Carlisle, York, and Trevorton.
Immigrants from Catholic parts of Germany settled in Pennsylvania from Colonial times onward, becoming part of the sub-strata of the diocese. Theirs were among the first of the diocese’s early parishes, and they formed the bulk of parishioners in Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties especially. Holy Trinity in Columbia and Saint Joseph and Saint Anthony in Lancaster were founded as German parishes. The influx of German-speaking Austrians, who had been relocated by the Hapsburgs into the Balkans during the late 18th century and differed in culture from those who originated in Germany, created the need for the bishop to erect the German-Hungarian parishes of Saint Lawrence in Harrisburg, Saint John in Enhaut and Saint Gertrude in Lebanon.
Eastern and Southern Europeans
Immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe began arriving in our area in the 1850s and 1860s, only a few years before the Diocese of Harrisburg was established in 1868. A combination of political oppression and unfavorable economic conditions was the impetus behind the major wave of immigration to America. Lured by the advertisements of coal and steel companies promising jobs in the booming coal regions and steel towns as well as letters from earlier immigrants hearing enthusiastic reports about their new lives, thousands of new immigrants came to build a better future for themselves and for their children. These poorest of the poor helped America to develop into the superpower it is.
Eager for work, these newcomers accepted wages, which they considered high enough but those already established in the mining and steel industries considered low. Initially this economic disparity along with their foreign languages and Catholic religion earned them considerable resentment in their new communities.
The Church was by far the strongest influence in the lives of these immigrants, and the parish was the hub around which their lives revolved. The church bound the faithful spiritually by liturgical events and devotional services. Christmas and Easter, Lent and Advent remained the highlights all of the immigrants’ social and religious year.
These immigrant parents laid great stress on the value of education. This is attested to by the fact that every one of the ethnic parishes in the diocese had a parochial school.
Italians came into the diocese at the end of the 19th century and settled primarily in Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, and Hershey. Some came as skilled stonemasons and found employment in the quarries. Those who settled in Marysville built the Rockville railroad bridge over the Susquehanna, reputed to be the longest stone arch bridge in the world. Others, especially those from the impoverished south of Italy, came as unskilled workers, and sought employment wherever they could. Italian ethnic and language parishes were established in Mount Carmel, Steelton, and Berwick. The Daughters of Mercy established Holy Child Nursery and Misericordia Nursing Home in York.
The Polish immigrants were the largest and earliest East European group to settle in the diocese, coming in 1854, and in 1872. Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan established Saint Stanislaus in Shamokin, the first Polish parish in Pennsylvania. Saint Stephen in Shamokin, Saint Joseph and Our Mother of Consolation in Mount Carmel, and Saint Casimir in Kulpmont were established to serve their pastoral and liturgical needs. Polish immigrants also made up a majority of the parishioners in the parishes of Marion Heights, Ranshaw, and Roaring Creek.
The Slovaks, even by national statistics, were second in number. They settled in Mount Carmel in 1875, where Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan established Saint John the Baptist parish. Other Slovak parishes where Saint Mary in Shamokin and SS. Cyril and Methodius in Lebanon. The major contributions of the Slovak Catholics to the diocese include the Basilica, motherhouse and other institutions of the sisters of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Danville and the Jednota Estates and Printery in Middletown.
The Lithuanians hold a prominent place among the small ethnic groups instrumental in developing the diocese, with the parishes of Holy Cross in Mount Carmel and Saint Michael in Shamokin. Venerable Mother Maria Kaupas established the first religious community of Lithuanian women in the United States, the Sisters of Saint Casimir, in Mount Carmel in 1907
The Croatians arrived in Steelton beginning in the 1890s to work in the steel mills. To address the influx of Croatians and other immigrants, in 1898 Bishop John Shanahan established Saint Mary parish in Steelton for East European Catholics. Saint Mary Parish would come to be the largest Croatian parish in Pennsylvania.
The Eastern province of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, which worked among the Croatians at Saint Mary in Steelton, established their provincial house, retirement village and Academy at Columbia.
Immigrants came to Steelton in 1883 and, loyal to their Catholic Faith, by 1909 Bishop John Shanahan established Saint Peter parish for their knees in their newly adopted town.
Austrians and Hungarians
Austrians and other German-speaking immigrants from the province of Banat in lower Hungary (which later was ceded to Yugoslavia) also immigrated at the turn of the century.
For their special pastoral care, Saint John in Enhaut, Saint Gertrude in Lebanon, and Saint Lawrence in Harrisburg were established. Hungarian-speaking immigrants were also present in goodly numbers in the parishes in Berwick and Kulpmont.
Ukrainians and Ruthenians
Ukrainian and Ruthenian immigrants also had parishes of the Byzantine Rite established for them in Mount Carmel, Centralia, Marion Heights, Shamokin, Berwick, Williamstown, and Harrisburg. These, however, were subject to their own Ordinaries.
Perhaps the most enviable record attesting to the solidity of these faith communities is the fact that the East European parishes in the diocese have contributed over 100 priests and almost 300 nuns to the service of the Church.
The descendants of these European immigrants are now in every parish of the diocese. They have long become an integral part and an honored mainstay of the greater community. While becoming good Americans, they have remained good Catholics, true to the tradition of their forefathers.
African-American Catholics have been present in the territory of the diocese since colonial times. Though a relatively small percentage of the total Catholic population, African-American parishioners are present and active throughout the diocese, especially in Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, and Chambersburg, and in many of our Catholic schools. Black Catholic Ministry in the diocese provides greater awareness and celebration of the dynamic presence of the African-American community in our midst.
Shortly after World War II Hispanics began to come in great numbers to work in the farmlands of the Susquehanna Valley. Farm workers from Puerto Rico and Mexico, from Central and South America began to settle here and by the middle of the 1990s Lancaster, Lebanon, York, and Benderville all had Hispanic parishes. In 1995 all except one of the ethnic parishes were suppressed during the parish consolidation program. At present, San Juan Bautista in Lancaster is the only ethnic Parish in the diocese. However, Saint Benedict in Lebanon, Saint Mary in York, Saint Francis of Assisi in Harrisburg, Saint Francis Xavier in Gettysburg, and Saint Joseph in Hanover serve the needs of our growing Hispanic Catholic population. Hispanic ministry has also recently begun in York Springs.
The period after the Vietnam War saw a great influx of Asian Catholics into the diocese, especially Vietnamese and Filipinos. Later there came many Koreans, Cambodians, Laotians, Thais and Burmese. Although there is a ministry to these Asian Catholics, no ethnic parishes have been established for them. They seem to fit well into the territorial parishes in which they live and they become actively involved in these parishes. Bishop Rhoades encourages ethnic, cultural, and religious celebrations with which they can identify.