Beginnings of Catholicism in Central PA
Pioneer German Jesuits brought Catholicism to Central Pennsylvania in
the pre-Revolutionary era. These Jesuits had established the "Conewago
Chapel" and Old St. Mary's Church in neighboring Lancaster. In 1806,
according to the Sulpician historian, Father Jean Dilhet, there was a
small Catholic Mission in the "chief town of Dauphin County,
Harrisburg." In 1813, the Allison Hill property known as Sylvan Heights
was purchased, and evidence indicates that a chapel was built on that
With the construction of a vast system of canals,
railroads, and turnpikes along the Susquehanna River, many Irish
immigrants soon arrived. The influx of these Irish laborers influenced
the building of St. Patrick's church closer to the riverfront. In 1824,
Fr. Patrick Leary purchased the present site on State Street, and in
1826 the cornerstone was laid.
The original Church was constructed for the
princely sum of $6,500. During the period from 1826 to 1846, a rectory
was built, a school for girls on Pine Street was staffed by the Sisters
of Charity, and new altars and an organ were installed.
St. John Neumann Visits
Records of the Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia reveal the
fact that St. John Nepomucene Neumann, who had been consecrated Bishop
of Philadelphia in 1852, listed in his diary two visitations to St.
Patrick's, in 1855 and 1857.
Creation of Episcopal See
Population, progress, and the piety of Catholics in Central Pennsylvania
prompted the creation of an Episcopal See in Harrisburg by Pope Pius IX
on March 3, 1868. St. Patrick Church was designated the procathedral,
and the diocese was placed under the patronage of this Irish Saint. A
procathedral is a temporary setting for the Bishop's Chair, "cathedral,"
until a permanent cathedral can be erected.
The Rev. Jeremiah F. Shanahan was consecrated as
the first Bishop of the newly established diocese. He had the
distinction of sitting in session with the Fathers of the Church at the
First Vatican Council during 1869-70, and also attended the Third
Plenary Council of the Church in Baltimore.
At the Diocesan Synod in October of 1902, Bishop John W. Shanahan
proposed the idea of the erection of the Cathedral, and a committee of
priests was appointed. A few months later, the committee adopted plans
submitted by the architectural firm of George L. Lovatt of Philadelphia.
In order to allow for sufficient building space, the dead buried in the
adjacent cemetery were re-interred and laid to rest in the newly
acquired Mount Calvary Cemetery, on Thirteenth Street.
The construction contract for the new cathedral
was awarded to the McShane Company of Philadelphia, and construction of
the church began in 1904. It was completed on March 1, 1907.
Cruciform in shape and built at a cost of
$250,000, the exterior was executed in sturdy North Carolina granite.
The architectural design of the new cathedral was patterned in the
Romanesque-Renaissance style. Its marble Main Altar was patterned after
Bernini's which adorns the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in St.
Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The nave of the interior was separated from
spacious aisles by two rows of majestic granite columns, which support a
gracefully vaulted ceiling. The interior walls were wainscoted in
oriental marble crowned with Conemora green marble measuring nine feet
in height. The carved figures of the original pulpit, styled after a
fresco in the Roman Catacombs, were designed to represent the four
evangelists hailing the Divine Lamb standing on the Mystic mount.
A renovation of the cathedral took place in 1949-50. This updating of
the cathedral placed it in the forefront of cathedrals located along the
eastern seaboard. The huge marble altar was redesigned and simplified,
and the sanctuary area was remodeled to provide additional space.
Frescoes of Saints Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, and
Ambrose, Fathers of the Church, were added to embellish the ceiling
beneath the dome where on a coral band is inscribed the heartening
message of our Divine Savior: "Behold, I am with you all days, even to
the consummation of the world."
At choir level on the continuing coral band with
etched gold letters are offered the counsels of perfection. The Shrines
of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph were accorded new and brightened
chiaroscuro backdrops which brightly accentuate the statue of Mary,
while St. Joseph's statue was surrounded by paneled representations of
events in the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. The Stations of the
Cross were recessed in the walls and executed in simulated bronze,
highlighted in gold. Every particular item in the renovation of the
cathedral was donated and is recorded on the bronze plaque to the left
as you enter the church.
Bishop Philip R. McDevitt honored the memory of his predecessor, Bishop
John W. Shanahan, with a shrine consisting of a bronze crucifix, which
was erected at the rear of the cathedral. To honor Bishop McDevitt's
interest in youth, his predecessor, Bishop George L. Leech, had a
similar shrine erected depicting Christ teaching the children.
In 1995, two additional memorials were added to
the Cathedral. These shrines were placed in the Narthex of the
Cathedral. The shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, in memory of Bishop
George L. Leech, stands to the right. The shrine of St. John Neumann, in
memory of Bishop Joseph T. Daley, stands to the left. In addition, a
shrine to Blessed Katherine Drexel is located in the Cathedral portico.
Modifications to the sanctuary came in 1976. A permanent Altar of
Sacrifice was cut from the original main altar and moved closer to the
congregation. The tabernacle was placed at a new Altar of Repose. A new
pulpit or ambo was also installed. The Bishop's chair was relocated in a
more central position in the sanctuary.
This text was excerpted from "A Visible
Sign of Our Faith Journey", published in commemoration of the Jubilee
year 2000. Acknowledgments for the publication: Stephen Lock and Carrie
Phillips of Journal Publications; Margaret Danner, George J. McLaughlin,
Margaret Peters, and David & Donna Schankweiler of Cathedral Parish.
Patrick Cathedral History and Self-Guided Tour Book
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