100 Years and Rolling, on The River and by the Spirit

Rising just beyond the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River, the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa., stands nearly shoulder to shoulder with the immense and ornate Pennsylvania State Capitol building.

It’s as though the former was sent here to remind lawmakers that, one day, they will answer to a higher authority than the voters who sent them to the highest halls of Keystone State governance.

“We are literally on the corner of State Street and Church Street in Harrisburg,” notes Father Thomas Rozman, pastor of the cathedral parish. “I think there’s a lot of symbolism there.”

The cathedral’s great copper dome — the only dome aside from the Capitol on the city skyline — towers some 200 feet over the street. The eyes of the faithful have looked upon this Romanesque sight for a century. In fact, it’s commemorating its centennial anniversary this very month.

Inside, the marble main altar was patterned after the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. Paintings of the Four Evangelists and four doctors of the Church in the trompe l’oiel style — realism so convincing it can “fool the eye,” as the French name suggests — gird the dome and ornament the back of the nave. You look around and wonder: What is Renaissance Rome doing in agricultural Pennsylvania?

Reminders of who lives here are everywhere. Jesus’ words top the altar (“I am the Resurrection and the Life”) and encircle the dome (“Behold, I am with you all days”). Some 53 stained-glass windows display scenes from the Gospels, conveying the story of salvation.

Toward the front, at either end of the transept — the “crossbeam” of the structure’s cruciform layout — are two gigantic windows. One depicts Christ performing his first public miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. The other has St. Patrick using his trusty shamrock to teach the princes of Ireland about the Trinity.

Irish Ayes

Founded in 1868, the Diocese of Harrisburg was placed under the patronage of the famed Irish saint thanks to a great influx of Irish laborers. They’d left their homeland to work on the vast transportation system — canals, railroads, turnpikes — going up along the Susquehanna.

The cathedral was constructed on the faith of its parishioners. The location was the original site of St. Patrick Church and cemetery, and graves had to be moved to new ground to make way for the building.

A stone statue of St. Patrick, the patron saint of the Diocese of Harrisburg, greets all who enter through the cathedral’s main entrance. In addition to honoring parishioners’ Irish roots, the dedication of the cathedral to the patronage of St. Patrick also made a bold statement for the times. St. Patrick, who had been kidnapped into slavery as a young man, preached a message of freedom from captivity. This was a fitting message for the post-Civil War era.

And, for his day, St. Patrick (d. 461) was a surprisingly strong advocate for the dignity of women, anticipating by many centuries the suffrage movement in America. The Irish brought St. Patrick’s story to the new land, reinventing his message of freedom for the American present.

In addition to the thousands of unnamed faithful who left their mark on the building throughout the years, the cathedral also pays tribute to the local men and women who have since been named saints of the Church. The narthex contains a small shrine to St. John Neumann, bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860, who is recorded to have visited the parish twice. Opposite this is a shrine to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint and foundress of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. A final shrine to St. Katharine Drexel, another saint local to the Pennsylvania area, is located in the cathedral portico.

Centenary Indulgence

Following exterior renovations by the late Bishop Nicholas Datillo, who died in 2004, restoration work continued under Bishop Kevin Rhoades. The interior was fully renovated and restored in 2006. This glorious house of God now displays its original grandeur much as its first parishioners and pilgrims saw it.

Improvements were made to the tabernacle, marble flooring, the suspended crucifix over the altar and the cathedra (the bishop’s chair). The canvas paintings of the Four Evangelists are also a recent addition. 

Maybe the best news of all is that Bishop Rhoades petitioned the Holy See to grant a plenary indulgence for all who make a pilgrimage to the cathedral during this, its centennial year. Needless to say, the Vatican approved the request. For information on gaining the plenary indulgence, visit hbgdiocese.org and click on the St. Patrick icon on the right.

“I think we are a presence as far as being living stones of the Church,” Father Rozman says, referencing 1 Peter 2:4-5: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

“There’s a lot of ministry that takes place to people in need here,” adds the pastor. “So it’s nice that, as people see this beautiful dome and witness all the effort that was put into restoring the church, they also see that we put a lot of effort into restoring people’s lives.”

Let’s see the state Capitol match that goal.

Sarah Adams is a staff writer for The Catholic Witness, newspaper of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

Saint Patrick Cathedral
212 State St.
Harrisburg, PA 17101

(717) 232-2169


Planning Your Visit

Daily Mass is celebrated at 6:45 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and at noon Monday through Friday. Sunday Mass is celebrated at 5:30 p.m. Saturday (vigil) and Sunday at 7:30, 9:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Visit the cathedral’s website for devotions, events, directions and other information.