Once a pillar of Catholicism in colonial America, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart remains a ‘gateway of faith’

With its commanding view of bucolic farmers’ fields, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is called the “Gem of the Colonial Catholic Churches.” The scene has hardly changed in decades. Since 1787, the year the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia, this church has served the chiefly Catholic population in the Hanover, Pa., area.

With its facade of sandstone and side and rear walls of three-foot thick fieldstone, this edifice is the oldest Catholic church built of stone in the United States. At the time, more than 1,000 parishioners attended. By the turn of the century, it had grown to nearly 5,000 members — the largest parish in the fledgling nation.

Long before being named a basilica in 1962, the place was a pillar of Catholicism for the 13 colonies.

In 1787, the new church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the first in the country and most likely the first in the western hemisphere with this title. It replaced the original log chapel and dwelling that was built in 1741, called St. Mary of the Assumption — more familiarly known as Conewago Chapel. Even today, if you ask directions to the basilica, residents may not realize what you mean unless you use the name Conewago Chapel.

Long before being named a basilica in 1962, the place was a pillar of Catholicism for the 13 colonies. Jesuit missionaries traveled from Maryland and their first mission stop was rural Conewago. By the early 18th century, it was the first distinguishably Catholic settlement in Pennsylvania. Its earliest parishioners were German immigrants.

By the late 1760's Conewago Chapel had become headquarters of the mission territory and it stretched as far as western Pennsylvania and Maryland, and included the Shenandoah Valley. Jesuit annals identified it as the “motherhouse of all the Jesuit houses in Pennsylvania, save Philadelphia.”

There are many important names in the Catholic history of America with ties to Conewago. Father Theodore Schneider, founder of St. Paul's Chapel in Bally in 1741, was an itinerant pastor there for five years. Father Augustin Bally's first assignment in the states was there. Prince Gallitzin, better known as the “Apostle of the Alleghenies,” was very familiar with this stone church. He began his priestly life at the then Sacred Heart Church before heading west to found the parish and town of Loretto.

In the 1850s, St. John Neumann, then bishop of Philadelphia, visited Conewago five times shortly after the new transept and apse were added. It's little wonder that one title applied to this mother church was “Gateway of the Faith.”

Many of the early worshippers at this “gateway” remain interred in the present left transept, standing on what was once part of the cemetery for the log chapel. A plaque was erected in commemoration of the early pastors and parishioners whose headstones now stand in the cemetery behind the church.

When the church was built by Father James Pellentz SJ, first vicar general in America, during his 32 years at Conewago, the liturgical art was decades from completion. By 1851, artist Franz Stecher had done a series of paintings on the apse's ceiling, and also along the ceilings and walls of the transepts. Their theme: God's love and our redemption.

High above the main altar, there is a mural depicting God the Father sending his son to atone for the sins of mankind. Jesus gives up his kingly crown for a crown of thorns. The story continues with murals of the Nativity in the left transept and of the Crucifixion in the right, where the ceiling mural celebrates Christ triumphant.

Another ceiling mural depicts the Sacred Heart and God the Father. Adoring angels surround the Sacred Heart as he resumes his kingly crown and is enthroned with the Father's words, “Sit at my right hand.”

Seven years before, another artist completed the extensive fresco of the Assumption on the nave ceiling. An elaborately painted framework borders the fresco. At the far corners are the four evangelists.

In the transepts, paintings at the side altars are crowned by bas reliefs of the Sacred Heart. There are reminders of Jesuit saints too. The beautiful Munich stained-glass windows lining the nave were installed between 1902 and 1914. On one side they highlight the joyful mysteries, and on the other, scenes from Jesus at Cana, preaching, and laid in the tomb. The gallery windows above honor various saints.

The painting behind the main altar was commissioned for the centennial as another fitting reminder of the church's dedication. In it, the Sacred Heart appears to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, while her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombiere, looks on.

During renovations in preparation for the honor of basilica, in 1962, and for the 175th anniversary of the church, not only were the murals restored, but the gradines of the 1877 marble altar were removed and made into pillars for the baldachino.

In 1901, after nearly two centuries, the Jesuits turned the parish over to the Harrisburg diocese. A year later, the present stone school and hall replaced earlier buildings. The Sisters of St. Joseph came and continue even today as part of the present staff for the 250 pupils.

The stone basilica is 12 miles east of Gettysburg, and 42 miles northwest of Baltimore. From that city, take Interstate 795 to state Route 30N which changes in Pennsylvania to Route 94N. Follow to Hanover and Route 116W a few miles to Centennial Rd., right 1.1 mi. to a right on Chapel St. and on to the basilica. From Philadelphia, take Route 202W becoming Route 30W, to New Oxford and 4 mi. south to the church.

Edgegrove may be a small village in the Hanover area, yet since the colonial days, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart has played a major role in Catholicism. Its history has prompted different titles, and so has its artwork. William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, then an archbishop, called the basilica “our Sistine Chapel.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.