Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The earliest settlers on this site, Swedes, Dutch, and English, have apparently left no record of the presence of any Catholics; but this city founded in 1682, by William Penn, with explicit provision of liberty for all religions, soon became a refuge for persecuted "Papists" from other countries and from other colonies in America. It is thought that the first Catholic resident was a German, now unknown by name, who in 1683 came with Pastorius to Germantown, a part of the present Philadelphia. Several Catholics were named in the early records, and c.1707 a convert, Lionel Brittin, was received into the Church. As early as 1708 and in later years, Penn was reproached in England for the fact that the government of his colony had "suffered the scandal of Mass to be publicly celebrated." The first priest known to reside permanently in Philadelphia, from about 1730, was Father Joseph Greaton, S.J., who since 1721 had traveled about, ministering to various missions in Pennsylvania and neighboring colonies. His assistants and earliest successors also were Jesuits: Father Henry Neale; Father Theodore Schneider and Fahter William Wappeler who came from Goshenhoppen and Conewago to hear confessions in German; Father Robert Harding, the second pastor; Father Steinmeyer, usually known as Father Ferdinand Farmer, who became a member of the Philosophical Society and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania; and Father Robert Molyneux who in 1782 erected the first special building for a parochial school. A prominent Catholic layman, Thomas Fitzsimons, was a member of the First Continental Congress, the Congress of the old Confederacy, the Constitutional Convention, and the first, second, and third Congresses of the United States. He was also one of the Catholics who fought in the War for Independence; of these the most famous Philadelphians were Brigadier-General Stephen Moylan and Captain John Barry. The former, after the war, served as Registrar and Recorder of Chester County and Commissioner of Loans of Philadelphia. Captain Barry was in command of various vessels and also served in the army, taking part in the battles of Trenton and Princeton; in 1794 he became ranking officer of the newly organized United States Navy. At the end of the war a solemn Te Deum was chanted in Saint Joseph's Church and was attended by leading citizens of various denominations, including Washington; this was one evidence of the fact that the Church was now looked upon with increased respect because of the patriotism shown by Catholic citizens and also because of regard for the allied French soldiers and diplomatic representatives and their chaplains. Heroic service was given by the priests in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in which Father Lawrence Gressel and Father Francis Fleming, a Dominican, gave their lives; again in the cholera epidemic of 1832 priests and Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin were publicly commended for their relief work. The rectory of Saint Augustine's was then used as an emergency hospital in which 367 patients were cared for. In 1796 when the Augustinians appealed for aid in establishing a church in the northern part of the city, the list of subscriptions included generous amounts given by President Washington and Stephen Girard. Philadelphia was under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of London and then of the Prefect Apostolic or Bishop of Baltimore until 1808; in that year the Diocese of Philadelphia was established. In two churches of the city there were contests of authority between bishops and trustees; both cases eventually were settled in favor of the authority of the bishops. In 1834 there were in the city about 25,000 Catholics with ten priests, and five churches. Anti-Catholic feeling broke out again in 1844 when a request that Catholic children in the public schools might do their Bible reading from a Catholic version, was made the occasion of rioting by "Native Americans." Two churches, a convent, a rectory with a valuable library, and many private houses were burned, and several lives were lost. The county paid indemnity for some of the destruction. During the 19th century the great increase in the Catholic population of the city was accompanied by the building of many schools, hospitals, charitable institutions, and churches, including a cathedral. In 1884 the American Catholic Historical Society was founded in Philadelphia by Martin I. J. Griffin. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishop for the United States resides in Philadelphia.

New Catholic Dictionary

NCD Index SQPN Contact Author