Basilica of the Sacred Heart Restored to Artistic and Historic Glory

‘That experience begins as soon as one passes through the reserved Federalist exterior and is drawn into the Baroque-revival jewel box of color and light, gilding and grandeur’ — art historian Amy Marie Zucca

The 'Vision of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary,' behind the main altar presents the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
The 'Vision of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary,' behind the main altar presents the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. (photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd. )

After last year’s monumental conservation and preservation project that restored and augmented its original artistic glory, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, also the oldest Catholic church constructed of stone in the United States, is again “among the fairest in the land” — a phrase used by Pope St. John XXIII on June 30, 1962, when he named Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hanover, Pennsylvania, a basilica.

“Blessed in the sight of heaven is the place called Conewago, famous, above all else, as the seat of the first church in the United States, and perhaps in all North America, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. … [T]his church is counted among the fairest of the land,” he wrote.

The parish was founded in 1730, when the Jesuits established a mission named Conewago Chapel here: The first stop for priests traveling from Maryland on their mission circuit was in rural Conewago township, about 10 miles east of what would be Gettysburg. Then, in 1741, a new log chapel was dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption. From the beginnings, this chapel was a pillar of Catholicism for the 13 colonies and the first distinguishably Catholic settlement in Pennsylvania.

Sacred Heart Basilica Hanover
Sign details the history.(Photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd.)

In 1850, a new transept and apse were added to the chapel. By 1784, the faithful contingent grew to more than 1,000 people forming the largest Catholic parish in America at the time.

With need of a much larger church, today’s church, with its three-foot-thick red-stone walls, was built beginning in 1785. When completed, it was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Aug. 15, 1787, a month before the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia. It was the largest Catholic church structure within the new nation — and ready for a congregation that would more than quadruple by the turn of the century.

Important names in the Catholic history of America had ties to Conewago Chapel as the church continued to be popularly called by locals. A Russian prince, Servant of God Father Demetrius Gallitzin, better known as the “Apostle of the Alleghenies,” spent the first five years of his priestly life in this stone church. In the 1850s, St. John Neumann, then bishop of Philadelphia, visited Conewago five times shortly after the 1850-51 enlargement.

The exterior is designed in the Federalist style popular in that period. “Within its doors, however, the interior is a complete, immersive world of Baroque-revival decoration, visually hearkening back to the great 17th-century churches of Rome and their painted programs that proclaim a Church Triumphant,” explained Amy Marie Zucca, resident art historian at Canning Liturgical Arts that carried out the astounding restoration.

Then came a major change: All of the original magnificent artwork was painted over and hidden in the 1960s. But under those paint layers, Canning’s artists and artisans discovered the treasure trove of all the original chapel and church’s well-preserved decorative paint, fine art designs and murals done by the original artists.

“For over 100 years, that decoration spoke to the liturgy, spoke to the Mass, spoke to the parishioners,” David Riccio of Canning Co. said. “I started to do these huge paint exposures, peeling back layers of paint, and I found the [19th century] decoration fully intact in many cases. It was miraculous. This turned from a replication project into what we call conservation or preservation project, where we salvaged all the historic fabric on those ceilings and walls, and then we did repairs to them. And that usually doesn’t happen.”

It was little surprise that the artwork and liturgical decoration and architecture reflected the beauty of churches in Rome, especially the mother church of the Jesuits, the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù, known as the Gesù, noted Zucca about the inspiration for this Hanover church. She described Sacred Heart Basilica as “the first American heir to the Baroque ambitions of Rome.”

“Like the Gesù, Sacred Heart was made for a popular audience to inspire awe and surprise. The luxurious Baroque-revival interior hidden behind the restrained Federalist exterior is delightfully unexpected.”

Of course, there are reflections of the lavish ornamentation of the Gesù in the way tromp l’oeil faux marble finishes are used — “faux” since Sacred Heart’s materials had to be modest. Yet, Zucca pointed out, “[A]chieving the visual effect of something more grand and costly via masterly illusionistic painting is itself a characteristic Baroque device, again intended to surprise and delight.”

The basilica’s monumental murals are ever-present reminders to the faithful of the “Triumph of the Church,” one of the themes they are intended to proclaim. On the nave ceiling is the church’s earliest painting from 1844, the Assumption of Mary by a Philadelphia artist identified simply as Gephart. Then, in the transept ceilings and the crossing in the center, are Austrian artist Franz Stecher’s three Wonders of Divine Love done in 1850. That same year he also did the epic mural of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that fills the semi-dome of the apse. (This church was his last — and lasting — commission. Stecher died soon after he returned to Austria.)

Sacred Heart Basilica Hanover
On the nave ceiling is the church’s earliest painting from 1844, the ‘Assumption of Mary.’(Photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd.)

Magnificent Sacred Art

Looking at these murals individually, the Assumption shows a heavenward depiction of Mary surrounded in golden light, supported by angels. From the corners of the elaborately ornamental and gilded tromp l’oeil frame, the Evangelists view the Assumption.

Stecher’s murals — he did most of them in the church — of the Wonders of Divine Love “illustrate the movement of the Trinity from glory to greater glory,” noted Zucca. In one transept, Christ is shown removing his crown and preparing to become a servant. In the other, he is depicted returning to the Father. Angel renderings display a banner proclaiming, “Alleluia.”

Another ceiling mural depicts the Sacred Heart and God the Father. Adoring angels surround the Sacred Heart resuming his kingly crown and enthroned, with the Father’s words, Sede a Dextris Meis — “Sit at my right hand.” The Father, Son and Holy Spirit appear together, with Jesus appearing as the Sacred Heart especially prominent.

Sacred Heart Basilica Hanover
Another ceiling mural depicts the Sacred Heart and God the Father.(Photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd. )

Some of the other murals in the transepts present the incarnation of Our Lord, the Nativity, and salvation by Jesus Christ through the scene of the Crucifixion.

Sacred Heart Basilica Hanover
Crucifixion scene(Photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd. )

Zucca pointed out that in these wall paintings, “Unlike the exaggerated elegance of the figures in the heavenly scene above, Stecher employs a more classical style to this earthly scene.”

Above the sanctuary, another monumental mural fills the apse’s ceiling — this one again emphasizing the Sacred Heart and the Holy Eucharist in a most extraordinary way. In the center, the brilliant monstrance is shaped like a golden heart and emblazoned with an image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart. Angel images surround as if in adoration or “playing” sacred hymns with trumpet, harp and added instruments, all with a banner proclaiming Tantum Ergo Sacramentum (“Therefore, so greatly the Sacrament”).

Sacred Heart Basilica Hanover
On the apse ceiling, a brilliant monstrance is shaped like a golden heart and emblazoned with an image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart.(Photo: John Canning & Co. Ltd.)

To either side of the sanctuary, Jesuit saints are honored with statues of Sts. Ignatius and Aloysius on the side altar of the Blessed Mother that also stands out with a magnificent painting of the Assumption, while on the opposite side altar appear statues of Sts. Francis Xavier and Peter Claver, along with Stecher’s painting of the death of St. Francis Xavier, his patron saint. Both paintings are framed within an elaborate reredos crowned by bas reliefs of the Sacred Heart.

These two paintings and the one in the sanctuary behind the altar were restored by Evergreene Architectural Arts in 2021 prior to the major Canning restoration and conservation of 2022-23. The painting behind the main altar was commissioned for the centennial celebration in 1887 and done by another major artist, Roman Filippo Costaggini, who also worked on churches and the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The wall behind the altar once featured Stetcher’s mural of the Last Supper, but heavy water damage made this replacement necessary. Called the Vision of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary, the painting presents the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, depicted kneeling before Christ. Shown looking on from a cloud to the side is her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière, who helped promote devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Also in 1887, another major Italian artist, Lorenzo Scattaglia, was commissioned to do all the highly decorative work. Turning to the ceiling, for instance, Zucca described it as “a completely ornamented surface in the Baroque tradition. Adorned with monumental tromp l’oeil coffers, intricately woven floral decorations, gilded frames, and a great window to the heavenward assumption of Mary.”

Also joining the profusion of decorative painting around the church are garland swags on tromp l’oeil relief panels, colored and veined faux marbles, ornate frames, gilded foliage, and much more.

Riccio said the various 1960s shields of coats-of-arms that covered the Stations of the Cross were also removed, and their original handcarved oak frames stored in a barn to deteriorate were restored to the stations. The original early-19th-century white Carrara marble altar that had been removed was reassembled and again took its place in the sanctuary.

The colorful Munich stained-glass windows along 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. Above them, windows lining the upper nave honor Jesuit saints, including Ignatius, Aloysius and John Berchmans. On the opposite side, the upper windows honor St. Patrick, patron saint of the diocese, and Sts. Germanus of Auxerre, Genevieve and Bridget. Another stained-glass window again honors the Sacred Heart.

Two statues of the Sacred Heart — one by the side altar of Mary and the other at the back of the church, continue to emphasize this essential devotion, as does the cornice frieze with its repeating pattern of gilded images of the Sacred Heart.

While no change came to the devotion at the church and to the Sacred Heart, the administration of the church, now a basilica, transferred from the Jesuits to the Diocese of Harrisburg in 1901.

Many years before this major restoration, while an archbishop, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore called the Sacred Heart Basilica “our Sistine Chapel” — an apt description as, in every way, the basilica visually proclaims the essential and irreplaceable importance of sacred beauty and the Sacred Heart.