A Brief History of the Growing Pains of the Church in Philadelphia

While the founding of Philadelphia as a diocese dates back to 1808 when it was separated from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the history of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania dates back another hundred years. The first Mass in Philadelphia was said in 1708 in a private home; however, the first church would not be built until 1729 when St. Thomas the Apostle in Glen Mills was built.[1] The Catholic community continued to slowly expand so that by 1785 there were three more parishes, Old St. Joseph’s, Old St. Mary’s, both in Philadelphia and St. John the Baptist in Ottsville, Bucks County.[2] Furthermore, at this time there were only five priests for the entire state.[3] As Philadelphia was a major metropolitan hub, its population continued to increase with immigrants coming from counties across Europe.  With the influx of these immigrants, Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, the first ethnic church in the country, was built in 1789 for the German Catholics and by 1808 the population of Catholics in the city had grown to 30,000.[4]


Catholic Historical Research Center Digital Collections https://omeka.chrc-phila.org/items/show/7133

The original boundary of the Diocese of Philadelphia included all of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and South Jersey. The first bishop was Michael Francis Egan, who had only 11 priests and 12 churches under his jurisdiction in Pennsylvania.[5] As the first bishop, Egan faced problems in establishing authority, with the trustees who ran Old Saint Mary’s Parish posing the biggest problem. Trustees were incorporated religious congregations that owned and managed the church property. The trustees at Old St. Mary’s challenged Bishop Egan’s authority on the ability to appoint and dismiss priests assigned to the church. The conflict was left unresolved as Egan passed away on July 22, 1814 and his replacement, Henry Conwell, was not appointed for another six years.[6]

Bishop Michael Egan, n.d.

Bishop Michael Egan, n.d.

Similar to Egan, Conwell struggled with the trustees of Old St. Mary’s. The conflict came to a head when Conwell excommunicated William Hogan, a popular priest from the parish. This was due to the fact that Hogan and members of the parish had continued to push against the authority of Bishop Conwell.[7] Even after Hogan was excommunicated, Old St. Mary’s supported him by ordering all “episcopal insignia be taken down” from the church and that Hogan resume his position as pastor of the parish.[8] The schism would even gain the attention of the Vatican, which sided with the authority of the bishop in a 1822 ruling.[9]

Engraving of Old St. Mary, n.d.

Engraving of Old St. Mary, n.d.

With the questions of authority resolved, the Church continued to grow under Conwell and his successor Francis Kenrick. Kenrick was actually appointed as coadjutor to Conwell in 1830 and would become the third bishop in 1842 upon Conwell’s death.[10] It would be under Kenrick that the church in Philadelphia would greatly expand, with the building of Saint Charles Seminary and the establishing of the first diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Herald.[11] By the end of Kenrick’s time as bishop in 1851, the diocese had added 80 churches, 90 priests, and 150,000 Catholics from when the diocese was founded in 1808.[12]


Catholic Historical Research Center Digital Collections https://omeka.chrc-phila.org/items/show/7134



[1] Thomas Hughes, History of the Society of Jesus in North America vol. II, (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1908) 473; Archdiocese of Philadelphia Catholic Directory, (Philadelphia: CatholicPhilly.com, 2018).

[2] Archdiocese of Philadelphia Catholic Directory, (Philadelphia: CatholicPhilly.com, 2018).

[3]John Gilmary Shea, Life and Times of the Most Rev. John Carroll, Bishop and First Archbishop of Baltimore, (New York: 1888).

[4] Thomas Rzeznik, “Roman Catholic Parishes,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/roman-catholic-parishes/; “A Brief History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” Archdiocese of Philadelphia, http://archphila.org/history.php.

[5] The Catholic Standard and Times, (July 29, 1976); “The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania before 1800,” http://omeka.pahrc.net/admin/items/show/id/7133.

[6] Christine Friend, “Philadelphia’s First Bishop,” CHRC (February 22, 2010), http://www.chrc-phila.org/philadelphias-first-bishop/.

[7] Martin I. J. Griffin, “Life of Bishop Conwell,” Records of the American Catholic History Society of Philadelphia, vol. 25, no. 2 (June, 1914), 160.

[8] Martin I. J. Griffin, “Life of Bishop Conwell,” 161.

[9] Thomas Rzeznik, “Roman Catholic Parishes.”

[10] “A Brief History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”

[11] Katherine DeFenzo, “Bishop Francis Kenrick and His Journals,” CHRC (August 20, 2015), http://www.chrc-phila.org/bishop-francis-kenrick-and-his-journals/.

[12] “A Brief History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”

Historic Resting Place for Famous and Faithful

by Christine McCullough Friend

Commodore John Barry, father of the American Navy. George Meade, grandfather of Civil War hero General George Meade. Katrina, Philadelphia servant. Katrina?

What does a servant girl have in common with these decorated war heroes and well-known patriots? They share a final resting place in Old St. Mary’s Cemetery where the famous and the ordinary lie side by side.

Old St. Mary’s Churchyard, engraving, n.d.

The cemetery lies in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district at 4th and Spruce Streets. The earliest tombstone inscription bears the date 1760. Before the establishment of the cemetery, Catholics were buried in a tiny plot adjoining Old St. Joseph Church (est. 1733) as well as in the Catholic section of the public burial ground at Washington  Square.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the German congregation of Holy Trinity acquired a strip of land from St. Mary’s to be used specifically for burials of their members.  The two parishes continued to share the burial ground for the next century.

Early meetings of St. Mary’s Board of Trustees, which are documented in the parish’s Minute Books, discuss resolutions concerning the burial ground, including who had permission to be buried there and the costs required. A meeting of the Board on May 4, 1789 states, “For every Pewholder or any of their Families (except Apprentices or Servants) above the age of Fifteen-Twelve Shillings & 6d-between fifteen and five-Seven Shillings & 6d. & all under Five years Five Shillings. ‘For’ Strangers and others not being Pewholders he shall demand double the above sums according to their Ages. The Poor shall be buried Gratis-…”

Minute Book of Old St. Mary, May 4, 1789

John Barry

Perhaps the most famous grave in Old St. Mary’s is that of Commodore John Barry. A native of County Wexford, Ireland, Barry served with distinction during the War for Independence, and was the first Commander- in- Chief of the United States Navy.

Bishop Egan, the first Bishop of Philadelphia, was initially interred in Old St. Mary’s. In 1869, his remains were removed to the vault beneath the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

During the American Revolution, a French general who fought at the Battle of Brandywine drowned in the Schuylkill River. General Philippe C. Ducoudray was crossing the river on the Market Street Ferry when his horse leaped over the side, with the general on its back. The general was buried at Old St. Mary’s, although the exact location of his grave is not known. One of the last acts of the Continental Congress before the British occupation of Philadelphia was to attend General Ducourday’s burial.

Hundreds of ordinary Catholics lie in unmarked graves alongside these famous burials. One that bears mention is Katrina, a poor servant whose last name was never recorded.

According to Catholic historian and journalist Martin I.J. Griffin, Katrina moved to Philadelphia from Lancaster to receive the ministry of the Jesuit Father Ferdinand Farmer. She worked as a servant of an innkeeper in Philadelphia. Katrina survived the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the city in 1793.

Fear of the fever was so great that survivors sought protection even from the dead. For sanitary reasons, over 2,600 loads of earth were spread over the surface of Old St. Mary’s Cemetery, raising the burial ground. Katrina, in order to secure a free burial, offered to spread one hundred loads of earth by hand. She died several years later after sustaining crippling injuries in a fire. True to her wishes, Katrina was buried in Old St. Mary’s Cemetery beneath the soil she helped spread. Her unmarked resting place remains unknown.

Time and weather have taken their toll on this cemetery, rendering many tombstones unreadable. In 1891, the American Catholic Historical Society published a list of the inscriptions of those tombstones that were still legible to document the deteriorating written record.

Sketch of Old. St. Mary’s burial ground at Spruce St. between 4th and 5th Streets, ca. 1891

Fitting memorials mark many of the graves in the cemetery. Other graves contain the remains of the not-so-famous faithful, who labored to build the Church in Philadelphia.

More information about Old St. Mary and its cemetery(ies) can be found in the Records and Researches of the American Catholic Historical Society. Along with other materials relating to Old St. Mary, PAHRC has the parish’s Minute Books from 1788-1899.

Philadelphia’s First Bishop

by Christine Friend

Philadelphia’s first Bishop, the Irish-born Franciscan Michael Egan, was appointed a full century after the American colonists began the practice of their Catholic Faith in the New World.

Bishop Michael Egan, n.d.

Bishop Michael Egan, n.d.

The colony of Pennsylvania, chartered in 1681 with William Penn as proprietor, offered the safety of religious tolerance, but 50 years passed before great numbers of Catholics settled in the colony.

The English-born Jesuit, Reverend Joseph Greaton, lived in Maryland as early as 1720, and traveled to Philadelphia to offer Mass and administer the sacraments.  By 1729, Father Greaton had taken up residence in Philadelphia, discreetly celebrating Mass in private homes.  In 1733 he established the first parish in Philadelphia, Saint Joseph’s Church, in a secluded alley near 4th and Walnut Streets.

By the eve of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the largest city in North America.  While under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, attempts were made to create a diocese with a resident bishop, but colonial priests discouraged this effort.  Fearful of re-igniting fierce anti-Catholic sentiment, and concerned about the public duties required of a bishop, American colonial priests declined all offers to establish an episcopate, or to allow a bishop to visit the colonies.

The first American diocese was established in Baltimore in 1789, under the leadership of Bishop John Carroll.  The boundaries of this singular diocese encompassed the entire United States.

Between 1790 and 1820, one-quarter-million immigrants arrived in the United States.  By 1810, the city and county of Philadelphia had over 100,000 inhabitants.

As the number of Catholics in the United States grew, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore suggested that his immense diocese be divided, and in 1808 the Dioceses of Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky were established.

The newly formed Diocese of Philadelphia encompassed all of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and the southern half of New Jersey. Just two years later, the Diocese of Philadelphia had approximately 11 priests, 16 churches and 30,000 Catholics.

Archbishop Carroll nominated Reverend Michael Egan as the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Philadelphia. Carroll described Egan in his letter of nomination as “truly pious, learned, religious, remarkable for his great humility, but deficient perhaps, in firmness and without great experience in the direction of affairs.”  This description would prove prophetic, as Egan’s episcopate was marred by administrative disputes with lay trustees.

Egan was born in 1761 in Limerick, Ireland.  As a young man he joined the Order of Friars Minor, and studied at Louvain and Prague, where he was probably ordained.  Several members of Bishop Egan’s family came to the United States during his tenure, and settled in Philadelphia.

Egan’s permanent residence in the United States began in 1802, although he may have been in the U.S. briefly in the summer of 1798.  He arrived in Albany, New York, but since he was not needed there, traveled to Saint Mary’s Church in Lancaster to work with Father Louis de Barth.  (Father de Barth, a life-long friend of Bishop Egan, would eventually succeed Egan as administrator of the Philadelphia Diocese until its second bishop, Henry Conwell, was appointed in 1820.)

Father Egan’s excellent reputation for preaching greatly appealed to the prestigious congregation of Saint Mary’s in Philadelphia.  The lay trustees elected him as one of the pastors in 1803, and Father Egan moved from Lancaster to Philadelphia.  After Egan’s appointment as bishop, Saint Mary’s became the diocesan procathedral (an existing parish church used as a cathedral).

Engraving of Old St. Mary, n.d.

Engraving of Old St. Mary, n.d.

Michael Egan was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia in April 1808, although political conditions in Europe and slow communications from Rome contributed to the delay of his consecration.  The ceremony finally took place in Baltimore in St. Peter’s procathedral on October 28, 1810, more than two years after his official appointment.

The newly appointed Bishop Egan soon found himself embroiled in disputes with lay trustees, and swayed by the dominant personality of his fellow priest, Reverend William Harold.   Bishop Egan suffered ill health for many years, with symptoms suggesting tuberculosis.  His poor health was exacerbated by the almost yearly outbreaks of yellow fever in Philadelphia.  During these outbreaks, over half the city residents fled to the country, and churches and gathering places were nearly empty.  Streets were piled high with coffins awaiting burial, and cries of “bring out your dead” echoed through the city.

Bishop Egan’s weakened physical state may have contributed to some of the administrative problems he encountered during his years in Philadelphia.  The growing debt at Saint Mary’s prompted the lay trustees to suggest decreasing the number of priests serving the congregation, as well as reducing the salaries of the remaining priests.  Egan found himself embroiled in conflicts with a radical faction of forceful lay trustees, who challenged the authority and jurisdiction of priests and bishops.

Draft of Trustees' report (April 13, 1812) suggested layoffs or decrease in clergy salary to combat the church's growing debt

Draft of Trustees' report (April 13, 1812) suggesting layoffs or a decrease in clergy salary to combat the church's growing debt, page 1

Trustees' report, page 2

Trustees' report, page 2

Egan vowed to be more assertive and tried to amicably resolve disputes, but his mild nature restricted his authority.  Divisions within the Philadelphia church remained, and tensions grew among the clergy based on issues of trusteeism and the extremely public nature of the conflict.  This upheaval in the Philadelphia church persisted even after the death of Philadelphia’s first bishop on July 22, 1814, at age 53.  The See remained vacant for the next six years, until Philadelphia’s second bishop, Henry Conwell, was appointed.

Bishop Egan was buried in the cemetery adjoining Old Saint Mary’s Church.  His remains were moved in 1869, along with those of Bishop Conwell, to the specially constructed crypt for the bishops of Philadelphia beneath the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.

Two collections that relate to this topic include St. Mary’s Church (MC-41) and the Bishop Michael Egan Papers (MC-70).  Information about Bishop Egan, St. Mary’s Church, and the issue of trusteeism can also be found within the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society in PAHRC’s collection.