Parish History

Parish History
The Diocesan Cathedral of St Patrick 1824-2000

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 site.

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.   

Cathedral Built
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.

Also see:  Saint Patrick Cathedral History and Self-Guided Tour Book