Over the weekend, I was out of town visiting friends in Pennsylvania, and we went to Sunday Mass at the Mater Dei Parish at St. Lawrence Chapel, located at 110 State St. in Harrisburg. This is a chapel of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and the parish is absolutely beautiful.
According to a booklet prepared for the 125th anniversary of the St. Lawrence Parish in 1984,
A trace of the roots of Saint Lawrence congregation leads to Father Joseph Greaton, S.J., who in 1720 was assigned a large mission territory. In south central Pennsylvania he found groups of German immigrants who communicated their need of German priests. In response to their appeal, Father William Wappeler and Father Theodore Schneider arrived from Germany in 1741. They also were Jesuits and came endowed with great missionary zeal.
Father Schneider ministered to the Germans in Philadelphia and in the missions which he organized in the surrounding country.
Father Wappeler found German Catholics scattered over wide areas. He established three places of assembly for his flock, one of which was at Conewago (now the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). Very soon the English began to mix with the German Catholics, so Father Wappeler had to become more proficient in English to minister to them.
Conewago Chapel, built in 1741 by Father Wappeler, was enlarged in 1768. By 1787 it was the largest church in the new nation. Its Jesuits continued to spread their apostolic labor over a wide area, including Harrisburg.
After a detailed accounting of the next century of development of the Catholic community that would eventually become St. Lawrence, the history continues:
On March 2, 1868, the Diocese of Harrisburg was created. Twenty-two priests came under the jurisdiction of the Rt. Rev. Jeremiah F. Shanahan, its first Bishop.
In its first ten years as a German congregation, Saint Lawrence had shared the services of eight priests, had acquired a small church building, and had its first resident pastor. At this point, a priest arrived who was destined to make a lasting impact on the history of Saint Lawrence congregation.
This amazing priest was Father Clement A. Koppernagel, from the province of Westphalia, Germany.
Appointed by Bishop Shanahan in January, 1869, the new pastor immediately assessed the needs of his parish and began planning to provide the congregation with a new church to accomodate its growing membership. In 1873, he sold the church property on N. Front Street to Henry Gilbert for $7,000. He purchased a new site for church and school purposes from Constantin Benitz, Mrs. Osler, and the Young estate for $11,500. It was an L-shaped piece of ground with a frontage for the proposed church on Walnut Street Facing Fifth Street (the present site of the Forum Building, formerly named the Education Building). The shorter arm of the L extended along Short Street (see map – Harrisburg 1910) and was reserved for the rectory, school and convent.
Father Koppernagel erected a temporary frame church for worship in the center of the lot. The new building was then built around and over it.
The church, one of the largest in the city, was planned by and built entirely under the supervision and largely by the manual labor of Father Koppernagel. The structure was brick, most of them laid by the pastor, with the assistance of a few parishioners. The walls supporting the steeples were four feet thick. The front walls were two feet thick and those on the sides twenty-one inches. It was reported in the local newspaper that no church in the city was so firmly and massively built.
The design of the church was Gothic. It was one of the finest specimens of this style of architecture in this part of the country. All the window glass was cut on the hand machine on the premises. The glass was then put together and stained by Father Koppernagel. He made the pulpits and altars. He formed the pews. He personally selected each piece of lumber. Photographs taken of the entire interior of the church show the delicate ornamental wood-carving executed by Father Koppernagel. All the capitals of the many pillars in the immense church were made by him. Temporary altars were built in the church was dedicated in September 1878. He designed and completed the side altars in 1882 in the magnificent main altar in 1884.
It is sometimes astonishing to think of all the work that went into our churches of ages past, and how much of the effort was done at the hands of pastors and laymen who gave every ounce of their artistic gifts and labor back to the service of glorifying God.
The original altar, built by Fr. Koppernagel, can be seen below on the left, next to the altar in the current church on the right:
Father Koppernagel celebrated the silver jubilee of his priesthood in 1891, and died later the same year. Just 30 years later, a new pastor — Fr. James Huber — would face a challenge that would ultimately erase the handiwork of his predecessor, Father Koppernagel, in the form of a government acquisition of the land on which the St. Lawrence parish stood at the direction of the State Capitol Park Extension in 1911.
To make a long story short, the parishioners overcame a number of obstacles to secure compensation from the government for the loss of their church and obtained the land upon which the new St. Lawrence parish — the one that still stands to this day — would be erected.
As diligently as father Koppernagel had worked with wood, bricks and mortar to construct old St. Lawrence, so father Huegel worked with pen, paper and people in years of negotiating with the Commission to secure a sum of money for its church property is commensurate with the cost of replacement. The effort culminated in December 1915, when, on the advice of Bishop Shanahan, the congregation agreed to accept $125,000 from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for all its church properties. Possession was set for March 31, 1917.
Paul Monahan of Philadelphia, a graduate of St. Lawrence school, was the architect. Father Huegel supervises the direction of the new parish buildings. Work was begun during the last week of June 1916.
The cornerstone was placed on October 29, 1916, by the Rt. Rev. Philip R. McDevitt, fourth Bishop of Harrisburg. It was his first public function after his installation. The cornerstone was placed in the center of the first dressed stone of the sanctuary arch at floor level on the gospel side. Directly back of the stone, the face of which is marked by a Maltese cross, was placed a copper box containing a history and other data of the parish.
The congregation, under contract to give possession of its property to the Commonwealth on March 31, 1917, was unable to do so until May 27, 1917, when the last service was held in old St. Lawrence church. From June 1, 1917, two March 17, 1918, Mass. was celebrated in the new school social hall.
The organ, purchased in the late 1890s, was rebuilt by the Bartholomew Company of Philadelphia and was installed the new church in 1917.
On March 24, 1918, Bishop McDevitt blessed the church and the first Mass was sung by Father Huegel. On the same day the stations of the cross were blessed by the pastor.
On April 19, 1918, the Bishop brought relics for the altars. They were sealed and enclosed in receptacles. The relics of St. Lawrence and St. Benedict were reserved for the main altar; those of St. Lawrence and St. Victoria for the Blessed Virgin altar and the relics of St. Lawrence and St. Benedict for the St. Joseph altar.
On April 20, 1918, Bishop McDevitt consecrated the church in honor of St. Lawrence, and the following day, celebrated Solemn Pontifical Mass.
St. Lawrence Parish had perpetuated itself with the determination of its parishioners, the approval of Bishop Shanahan, and the leadership of Father Huegel.
And now, a century after the present parish church was erected, it is again the home of the Mass of the Ages, nourishing Catholics longing for the liturgical traditions of our past. If you’re ever in the Pennsylvania capital, it is certainly worth a visit.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.