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.”

Bishop Francis Kenrick and His Journals

As a volunteer at PAHRC this summer, I was tasked with labeling descriptions of letters from one of the journals of Bishop Francis Kenrick, who served as bishop of Philadelphia from 1830 until 1851. This particular journal, which Kenrick kept while in Philadelphia, has never been published or translated from the original Latin in which much of it was written. In addition to this journal, Kenrick also kept another journal known as his Diary and Visitation Record that provides an account of his Episcopal Visitations throughout the Diocese of Philadelphia. This journal was translated into English by Reverend Francis Tourscher and published in 1916.

After noting the page on which each letter started, I marked whether the letter was written in English or Latin, which was the primary language of correspondence used by clergy during this time period. In his journal, Kenrick alternated between drafting long letters to fellow clergymen and jotting down short descriptions of letters written elsewhere; however, the inclusion of dates and the repeat appearance of various names made the letters easy to locate.

Bishop Francis P. Kenrick

Bishop Francis P. Kenrick

Born in Dublin in December of 1797, Kenrick first came to the United States after completing his clerical studies in Rome in 1821 and served as a professor of theology and history in Kentucky for the next nine years.  It was after attending the First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 that Kenrick began his work in Philadelphia. During his twenty years in the city, Kenrick supported the building of asylums for young boys and girls and dozens of new churches throughout the diocese; wisely encouraged the establishment of a new diocese in Pittsburgh; and consented to the creation of the newspaper The Catholic Herald. Kenrick was succeeded by Bishop John Neumann in 1852 after Kenrick was named the Archbishop of Baltimore.

The early years of Kenrick’s time in Philadelphia were not without controversy, and many of the letters at the beginning of his journal detail the events surrounding the conflict between the bishop and the trustees of St. Mary’s Church, then the cathedral of Philadelphia. Named coadjutor bishop while Bishop Henry Conwell retained the title, Kenrick took pains to assert his authority amidst opposition from the trustees and even placed the cathedral under interdict for a short time. Bishop Kenrick’s efforts contributed to a decline in the power of the trustees and to an increased sense of stability in a diocese that had been long divided by tensions arising from trusteeism.

A letter written by Bishop Kenrick describing the conditions to which he hoped the lay trustees of St. Mary's would agree.

A letter written by Bishop Kenrick describing the conditions to which he hoped the lay trustees of St. Mary’s would agree.

While Kenrick maintained in several of his letters that Masses and funeral services should continue to be said in Latin rather than in a vernacular language such as German, his letters reveal a concern for the growing population of German Catholics in his expansive diocese. It is clear from a letter written to Kenrick from the president of the Council of Lyon in 1843 that some missionaries of the time were concerned for the welfare of German Catholics in America (Correspondence 120). Bishop Kenrick provided money to aid a new German parish in Philadelphia (Nolan 252) and allowed for the publication of a Catholic newspaper in German.

A page from Kenrick's journal that mentions the establishment of the Catholic newspaper for Germans.

A page from Kenrick’s journal that mentions the establishment of the Catholic newspaper for Germans.

It was also interesting to note that two of the letters mentioned in Bishop Kenrick’s journal were written to Joseph Bonaparte, the older brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. In these letters Kenrick requests an image of St. Mary Magdalene and expresses his thanks for The Flagellation of Christ by Hannibal Carracci.

Perhaps most noteworthy was Bishop Kenrick’s recognition of the importance of ensuring that the priests in his diocese were well-educated, and it was his welcoming of a young student named Patrick Bradley into his home that marked the establishment of what is today St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Having such extensive experience as an educator, Kenrick taught his own students until his brother Peter arrived in 1834 and began to assist him. It seems fitting that a man so earnest in his desire to share his learning with others would refer to this particular endeavor as of the greatest “importance for the future of the Church” (qtd. in Nolan 187). The seminary continued to grow throughout Bishop Kenrick’s time in Philadelphia, especially after the Vincentians assumed control of its operations.

A letter in Latin written from Bishop Kenrick to Cardinal Pedicini in which he mentions the seminary, which was begun earlier that year.

A letter from 1832 to Cardinal Pedicini in which Kenrick mentions the seminary, which was begun earlier that year.

Learning more about the bishop who was so integrally responsible for the founding and expansion of the seminary was especially intriguing as a volunteer here. It is fortunate that Kenrick was so meticulous in keeping records of his life, since we are now able to use these records of his letters and travels to gain a deeper understanding of the Diocese of Philadelphia during a time of both hardships and great advances. The journal with which I worked offers insight into Kenrick’s personal relationships with other clerical officials, while his visitation journal details his travels throughout Pennsylvania and reveals him to be a man deeply interested in the spiritual well-being of the Catholics living in his diocese.


A typical page from Kenrick’s Visitation Records that shows the bishop’s concern with administering the sacraments to Catholics throughout the diocese.

This journal that Bishop Kenrick kept between 1830 and 1851 during his time in Philadelphia, as well as translations of many of his letters and of his diary and visitation records, can all be found here at the Historical Research Center. A summary and brief description of the main entries in Kenrick’s journal is also available here at PAHRC.



Kenrick, Francis Patrick. Diary and Visitation Record of the Rt. Rev. Francis Patrick Kenrick,  Administrator and Bishop of Philadelphia, 1831-1852, Later Archbishop of Baltimore. Trans. Francis Edward Tourscher. Lancaster: Wickersham Printing Co., 1916.

The Kenrick-Frenaye Correspondence: Letters chiefly of Francis Patrick Kenrick and Marc Antony Frenaye Selected from the Cathedral Archives, Philadelphia. Trans. Francis Edward Tourscher. Philadelphia: Wickersham Printing Company, 1920.

Looby, John. “Francis Patrick Kenrick.” Edited Appleton’s Enyclopedia. Virtualology, 2001.  <http://famousamericans.net/francispatrickkenrick/>.

Nolan, Hugh J. Francis Patrick Kenrick: Third Bishop of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1948.

O’Shea, John J. “Francis Patrick and Peter Richard Kenrick.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08618a.htm>.




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.