York Town Square

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This is one of York/Adams most beautiful settings. It's highlighted by a late-1700s stone church, Conewago Chapel, its spire visible for miles around.

Roman Catholics worshipped in the York County region since its earliest days

Another in a series of York Town Square posts on the religious scene in York County … .

Sacred Heart Basilica – Conewago Chapel – is the Mother Roman Catholic Church in York and Adams counties and also west of the Susquehanna River. The Chapel stands atop a hill in Edgegrove, Adams County.

This hearth of regional Roman Catholics came, in part, from migration through Maryland in the 1700s. Maryland, under Lord Baltimore, was a refuge for Catholics in the 1600s. Conewago Chapel stood in York County originally but gained a new county address when Adams formed from York County in 1800s.

This introduction comes from Conewago Chapel’s website, which was the source of other items in this chronology:

“The eminent York Historian, Anna Dill Gamble (1877-1956), said that there is a reason to believe that English Jesuits established a mission post in the Conewago region as early as 1637.  Father Joseph Greaton, SJ, the first priest whose name we know, attended the early Catholic settlers there.  He arrived in Maryland in 1719 and was assigned to the mission territory of Northern Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania.

“Conewago Chapel was founded in 1730 … ; by 1741  a combination log dwelling and the chapel had been built known as St. Mary of the Assumption.  By 1784 the Conewago congregation had grown to over a thousand members, the largest Catholic parish in early America.

“With the active help of parishioners, a new church, the largest Catholic church structure within the new nation, was started in 1785 and completed in 1787.  It became the first church in America dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and probably the first parish church in the Western Hemisphere bearing this title.  Today, it is the oldest Catholic church building in the United States built of stone.”

Several years ago, elaborate scaffolding was in place to work on Conwago Chapel’s tall steeple.

1776 –  Joseph Schmidt purchased the present site of St. Patrick Church for the use of the Catholic congregation. The origin of St. Patrick Parish dates back to as early as 1741, and the climate of the times against Catholic did not foster the construction of a church building until 1776. The congregation constructed its present building in 1895.

1777-78 – The Continental Congress’ visit to York brought several prominent Catholics to county soil: Charles Carroll, Maryland statesman; Marquis de Lafayette, French nobleman and Continental Army officer; and Polish Count Casimir Pulaski, among others.

1799: The Russian prince, Demetrius Gallitzin, spent his early years in the priesthood at Conewago Chapel.  In 1799 he set out to evangelize west of the Suquehanna and founded the settlement of Loretto in western Pennsylvania, where he gained the title “the Apostle of the Alleghenies.”

1852: St. John Neumann founded St. Mary’s parish in York, made up of German-speaking Catholics who had been members of St. Patrick’s church. St. Mary’s has evolved into a territorial and multilingual parish with special care for Hispanic immigrants since 1995.

1853: A group of Catholic families from Kurhessen, Germany came to Codorus Township and purchased land in a valley south of Shaffer’s Church, and the valley came to be known as Catholic Valley. The building no longer stands, but its cemetery is in place the valley is still called Catholic Valley.

1863- The Hanover mission of Conewago Chapel was established. Before that, the congregation met in private homes. The church, St. Joseph’s Church, ordered a bell in 1866.

1867: Wrightsville’s Catholic Church organized a Sunday School.

1901 – Jesuit fathers operated Conewago from its beginning until 1901, when they withdrew. The first pastor came from among the priests of the diocese.

1901-1906 – Extensive planting of congregations and renovating buildings of existing Catholic churches in York/Adams: Conewago Chapel – 1902; New Freedom – 1903; Bonneauville – 1903; Spring Grove – 1904; Hanover – 1905 – St. Vincent church; York -1906 – St. Rose of Lima formed.

1932: In 1902 a new school was built at Conewago Chapel.  For years the Sisters of Saint Joseph came from McSherrystown to teach at the Chapel School and the Irishtown and Mount Rock schools.  In 1932, those outlying schools were closed and education consolidated at Conewago.  A convent was provided for the teaching sisters.

1959 – St. Joseph’s church laid plans for an eventual move to suburban Springettsbury Township. In 1959, the Harrisburg diocese bought a 14-1/2 acre tract in Yorkshire, with plans to build a church school, convent, and play area.

1978-1980 – Christo Salvador Spanish church in York was established and merged into St. Mary’s in 1995.

2010 – In 2010, York County hosted 13 Catholic parishes, with 35,605 adherents. Adams County was home to 7 parishes, with 15,049 adherents.

The beautiful interior of Conewago Chapel. (York Daily Record file)

More about Roman Catholics in the region

You’ve seen just a brief summary of Catholic history in York/Adams. For more details about this long history, please check out my 2017 column: York County’s Catholics have been building for years. Clergy abuse means they must rebuild. 

More in this series

Check out these Retro York Facebook posts explaining and exploring the religious scene in York County


Up in that tall Conewago Chapel steeple, a worker labors to restore the historic structure.