Development of the Catholic Faith in Berks County

St. Peter, the first Catholic Church, Reading


The first Catholic congregation to be established in Pennsylvania was in 1734 when Father Greaton, S. J., a missionary from Maryland, built the Church of St. Joseph in Willing’s Alley in Philadelphia. In 1741 Father Theodore Schneider was sent by the German Province of Jesuits to minister to the Germans in Pennsylvania. Father Schneider, who had been an outstanding professor at Heidelberg University, Germany, began teaching the children of Berks County at Goshenhoppen, now Bally. In 1743 he founded the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Father Schneider is credited with being one of the earliest Catholic Missionaries in the thirteen original colonies in the United States and one who laid the inundation for many parishes which are flourishing throughout the State of Pennsylvania today.

Ten years after his arrival in Goshenhoppen, Father Schneider came to Reading when the population of Reading was approximately 378 persons. The few Catholics who settled in Reading shortly after its founding, in 1748, received ministrations from the priests from Goshenhoppen who came on horseback at regular intervals to serve their spiritual needs. At first, Father Schneider and Father Farmer served the Catholics in the town and their Jesuit successors did the same, and all the records, births, marriages and deaths of St. Peter’s Church were kept in the church at Goshenhoppen. The first baptismal record is of Margaret Miller baptized July 4, 1765. The first death recorded was Marie Chaumont in the same year.

In 1752 a modest chapel was built on the east side of Duke Street (lot number 321), now Seventh Street, between Franklin and Chestnut Streets, just opposite the site of the Franklin Street Railroad Station owned by the Reading Railroad. The chapel, alongside which was the graveyard, was a little blockhouse. The first chapel of log construction was supplanted about 1790 by a brick edifice.

The "Readinger Zeitung," (a German paper) on August 10, 1791, stated in way of an advertisement to be paid for:

The honored public is hereby Informed that the corner-stone of the new Catholic Church in Reading will, according to Christian custom, be laid with due solemnity on the 17th day of August next. Friends and well-wishers who desire to witness same are invited to attend.

The church was incorporated under the title of "The Trustees and Members of St. Peter's Church in the Borough of Reading," on April 30, 1818, Deed Book No. 29, p. 417. The trustees were: Sebastian Allgaier, Joseph Allgaier, Joseph Allgaier, J. F. Eichhorn, J. G. Repplier, Chester Rittner, Joseph Obold, Anthony Felix, and Jacob Lamtbert. The membership was as follows: Jonathan Allgaier, William Rehr, William Fricker, Chester Rittner, .Jr., Jacob Hartman, Daniel Clay, John Hartman, John Kunz, Michael Hartman, Jacob Felix, Simon Seyfert, George Siegfried, Jacob Allgaier, and Joseph Lambert.

The members of the original congregation were Germans; some of these were of mixed French ancestry, having come from Alsace and Lorraine.

The iron industry had early development in Berks County. During the eighteenth century it steadily grew in importance; and in 1835 the extensive Reading Iron Works were established. This together with the building of canals drew here a large number of Irish settlers, and English speaking priests began to appear.

In May, 1836, the church having become inadequate for the worshipers, a committee was appointed to consider ways and means of enlarging it. Little was done in the matter until 1844. About this time the Reading Railroad was built locating their depot and workshop opposite the little Catholic Church on South Seventh Street. This for a short time did not interfere, but soon became apparent that the increasing business of the railroad acted injuriously on the church. On account of the incessant noise divine service could not be performed with that silence and solemnity which is dear to all good Catholics. The church and graveyard on South Seventh Street were sold in 1845, to Jacob Miller for $3,000. The deed was executed on behalf of the corporation by William S. Allgaier and Arnold Puwelle.

In 1886 an old lady who had known the first primitive chapel was called upon to embody her recollections in a written description but she was so distressed by the disturbance to divine service caused by the rail­road tracks recently laid upon the fastidious thorough­fare of Seventh Street that she would talk of little else and the opportunity to secure some valuable data concerning the early Roman Catholic Church in Reading was lost forever.

With the approbation of the bishop it was determined to purchase the property on South Fifth Street, where the present Saint Peter's Church now stands. The cemetery adjoining the old church, at 111 Duke Street (now known as 7th Street) was relocated to St. Peter's Cemetery at the foot of the Neversink Mountain otherwise known as Nanny Goat Hill Cemetery. The bodies which had been buried in the old cemetery were transferred to their new resting place. Cemetery Marker Readings of Nanny Goat Hill Cemetery can be purchased from Closson Press.

On Sunday, the 24th of May, 1846 the newly built Saint Peter's Church was solemnly dedicated. On Tuesday, May 19, 1846 the following notice appeared in the German Adler:

"The newly built Catholic Church in the city of Reading will be solemnly dedicated with services to the Almighty, on Sunday, the 24th of May.

Divine services will be commenced on that day at half-past nine in the morning, and sermons in the English and German languages will be delivered.

The Right Reverend Bishop J. B. Purcell, of Cincinnati, and Bishop M. O'Connor, of Pittsburgh; also, Right Reverend Joseph Fey, Superior of the Redemptorists of Philadelphia; and Right Reverend Haszlinger, of Baltimore, will be present on this occasion. Afternoon and evening services will also be held. The public is respectfully invited, through the Building Committee to be present.

N.B. Collections during the services will be for the benefit of the new church."

The new Church was constructed of brick. The edifice made an imposing appearance with its one Gothic steeple rising from the center of the facade; the beautiful green lawn which surrounded the church was closed in with an ornamental iron fence and the rectory was located on the north side of the structure. There was a basement which contained Meeting Rooms for the parish societies and the parish library which was patronized by adults and children every Sunday after the regular masses. Sunday School was held in the main auditorium of the church where a balcony was provided for the choir of mixed voices under the leadership of the organist. The existence of a Trustee System of the Laity caused some trouble in the procurement of parish priests and it is known that when there was no resident priest at St. Peter’s Church, Father Augustine Bally, came to Reading on horseback from Goshenhoppen to give the Sunday Mass to the Catholics, and administered the sacraments to all who requested them.

Shortly after the dedication of the new church, a parish school was seen as an important need. The Rt. Rev. John Nepomucene Neumann, C.S.S.R., Bishop of Philadelphia of the Philadelphia Catholic diocese, who had been personally interested in establishing a parochial school for the parish, and who had purchased property at 225-227 South Fifth Street for that purpose, proposed to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Michigan, that they come to Reading and staff the parish school. This request was accepted and the development of a parish school was completed with their arrival in July 1859. On the 2nd of September 1859, Bishop Neumann celebrated the first Mass in the chapel and blessed the building. A Select School for Girls was opened on September 5, 1859; later on September 12th, a School for Boys was opened in the basement of the Church.

In 1860, Archbishop J.F. Wood of Philadelphia decided that a split between the German speakers and the Irish English speakers was advisable, and St. Paul’s was designated to be built for the Germans.

Pictured below is St. Peter's Church decorated in celebration of the end of the Civil War (1865). Abraham Lincoln's image appears above the central door.

St. Peter's Church (1865)

Abraham Lincoln above central door

In 1871 the church was enlarged to 140 by 60 feet at a cost of upwards of twenty thousand dollars. The Architect was Mr. E. F. Durang of Philadelphia. Re-dedication ceremonies were held on April 16, 1871. About twelve hundred people were in attendance. The services began with the ceremony of blessing the church, which was performed by Rt. Rev. John F. Wood, Bishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia, assisted by the attendant clergy. The procession moved from the altar to the door, where prayers were recited, and having passed around the church building, chanting the Miserere, re-entered the middle aisle, chanting the Litany of the Saints. After the completion of this service at the altar, the procession then moved around the outside aisles, the Bishop sprinkling the sides of the edifice with the Holy Water.

This preliminary ceremony, which occupied half an hour, was followed by the celebration of Solemn High Mass. The celebrant was Rev. Francis O’Neal, of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Philadelphia, the Deacon, Rev. Geo. Bornemann, of St. Paul’s, Reading, and the Sub-Deacon, Rev. Philip McEnroe of Schuylkill Haven, with Rev. A. J. McConomy, Rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Mr. J. J. Clark as Masters of Ceremonies.

The services occupied three hours, and at their conclusion Bishop Wood pronounced the Pontifical benediction. The Choir of the church was assisted by additional voices, and rendered in very beautiful style Mercedante’s Mass in E. Minor, together with the Sanctus, and Agnes Dei from Mozart’s Mass No. 1. The Salutaris from Concone was given during the offering.

Pictured below is St. Peter's Church as it appeared in 1876.

St. Peter's Church, 1876. Photo from 1876 Illustrated Historical Atlas of Berks County, Pennsylvania

St. Peter’s Church, as it stands today, is largely due to the untiring efforts of the Reverend James E. Cleary, pastor from 1889 until his death in 1904. Elaborate plans and specifications were prepared by Architect P. A. Walsh of Philadelphia. The design was largely after suggestions by Father Cleary, who spent years in its selection, visiting numerous churches in this country and Europe in search of the best.

The work of rebuilding the church was begun by Father Cleary In 1900 and continued for nearly five years. Only the brick walls of the old church were left standing and these now serve as the backing for the outer walls of granite. Within and without, the church was completely rebuilt and refurbished. As a memorial to the man who had done so much for the church, the congregation dedicated the main altar to Father Cleary’s memory. The altar is made of several kinds of marble and is one of the church’s outstanding works of art.

The cornerstone of the St. Peter's Church was laid in April, 1901. The cornerstone is of granite and bears the following inscription in raised letters:

Bishop Burrell conducted the cornerstone ceremony services, assisted by Bishop Basslinger, of Baltimore. The former delivered the English sermon and the latter made an address in German.

The formal opening of a new parish house took place on Thanksgiving day, 1902, with a reception held during the afternoon and evening. The house, at 320 South 5th, was a gift of the O'Reilly estate. The entire building was remodeled.

In April 8, 1904, Rev. James E. Cleary, pastor, who was in failing health for days, fell gravely ill. In a letter of Father Cleary's, he tells of his return from Europe in 1903, of his contracting an illness. His illness puzzled the physicians. Several times he had been believed to be dying, and just as often has he rallied. Masses were offered every day and the church was occupied almost continually from early morning until late at night by people praying for him.

On April 8, 1904, Rev. James E. Cleary, passed away to his eternal reward.

On Tuesday, April 12, 1904 a permit by the Board of Health, requested by George J. Gross, in behalf of the congregation of St. Peter's Catholic Church, was granted for the interment of the body of Rev. James E. Cleary, alongside the church, almost under the main tower. The request was unanimously granted.

Rev. James E. Cleary, who was the beloved rector of St. Peter's for 14 years was called to his eternal reward at the age of fifty. His death brought sorrow to the members of the parish, many who flocked to masses offered every day. The church was occupied almost continually from early morning until late at night by people praying for him. Rev. James E. Cleary was buried April 14th, with a Solemn Requiem Mass at which Bishop Shanahan, of the Harrisburg diocese, presided. Bishop Shanahan explained how Father Cleary had requested that there should be no sermon over his mortal remains. He continued:

"We must respect his wishes, much as we might desire to expound his virtues as a priest and his sterling qualities as a man. He died in the midst of his work, just the way every priest should die. He died way out on the fighting line, just where every priest should die. He died among a loving people - a people among whom any priest would love to live and love to die. The record of his glorious achievements is enshrined upon your memories. I need not ask of you that you pay him the tribute of your prayers, as I know you will."

"Eternal rest give unto him, 0 Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him."

Father Thomas S. McCarty, assistant pastor of St. Peter Church, assumed his new role as pastor and of completing the new church.

On Sunday, July 2, 1905, a ceremony was held to dedicate the completed St. Peter’s Catholic Church. The event was one that had been looked forward to with anxious expectancy by the people of St. Peter's for a long period. The work of building had been in progress since 1900. Cardinal Gibbons, of Baltimore, officiated at dedication ceremony, which started at 10 o'clock a.m. Bishop Prendergast of Philadelphia, also took part in the ceremony.

Dedication Services (Sunday, July 2, 1905)

Dedication Services (Sunday, July 2, 1905)

By the beginning of the 20th century in Reading, there was an urgent need for a Catholic secondary school. In order to meet the advanced academic needs of the Reading high school-age population, St. Peter's High School was founded in 1911. St. Peter’s High School was housed in the elementary school building at 225 S. 5th Street.

In July, 1911, the parochial school building of St. Peter's Catholic Church underwent a complete transformation. The Sisters moved across the street to No. 218, formerly the residence of Miss Sue E. Benson, so that the former convent building was now used exclusively for school purposes. What was formerly the boys’ school at the northeast corner of Fifth and Spruce Streets was vacated and disposed of.

As soon as the pastor, Rev. Thomas J. McCarty, had decided to use the convent for the school children, he made extensive improvements to the interior. These included the renovation of all the class rooms and the establishment of a hall in which to hold entertainments by the children and for the use of the various societies of the congregation.

With the interior work practically completed, Father McCarty set about to improve the exterior. The brick on the front wall was given a coating of French cement and so treated and marked as to represent sandstone. The wooden gates on each side of the building, and leading into the rear yards, had given way to ornamental granite stone arches. The front yard cast iron fence and its supporting brick wall were torn away and replaced with an ornamental wall of Port Deposit granite with Woodstock granite trimmings.

On June 25, 1914, the first annual commencement of St. Peter’s High School was gloriously celebrated. The graduates were: Grace E. Dow, Anna M. Hasson, Raymond C. Kohl and Aloysius P. McGran. Rev. John F. Kiernan, rector of St. Peter's Catholic Church, presented the medals and diplomas. On bended knees the graduates accepted the honors and bowed to the audience on their return to their seats.

The 1940’s saw the migration of Latino peoples into the Reading area; the 50’s and 60’s saw a significant increase in enrollment of Hispanics at St. Peter School. Increased enrollment in both grade school and high school created the need for additional classroom space. Therefore, the Allentown Diocese (established in 1961 from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) embarked upon a major building campaign. In 1964 Holy Name High School replaced St. Peter’s High School. The final graduation class from St. Peter’s High School was on June 4, 1964. St. Peter School continues to serve the needs of students from kindergarten through grade eight.

Regular Masses in Spanish were begun at St. Peter’s under Father Dennis Rigney on September 6, 1966. Under the inspiration of Father Rigney, the Kennedy House was organized to serve the social and material needs of the Spanish speaking people. With the help of Bishop Joseph McShea, the priests of Reading, and the Spanish speaking people, the property at 530 Spruce Street was purchased, renovated and dedicated on March 17, 1969. Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Sisters of Christian Charity enthusiastically joined numerous volunteers from the English and Spanish-speaking communities in the work and programs at Kennedy House. On February 15, 1970, Sister Fabian Tucker C.P.S., a native of Bermuda joined the Kennedy House staff and began her most effective apostolate with Reading’s Black community. The Kennedy House, now serve’s God’s people in a manner consistent with His call throughout the years. Today the latest refugees and immigrants share hopes and dreams for the gathering of God’s Kingdom. The poor sisters of St. Joseph have generously ministered at Kennedy House since December 8, 1979. A soup kitchen and clothing shop were opened there in 1982.

St. Peter’s Parish celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2002. Father Charles Marciano served as pastor until his death in 2003. The rectory was renamed the Parish House in December 2008. It contains Saint Anthony Chapel named such to honor the Lithuanian parish located at 8th and Bingaman Streets which was consolidated with Saint Peter Parish in 2004. St. Peter’s School celebrated its 150th anniversary on April 25, 2009. Monsignor Thomas J. Orsulak has served as pastor since 2005.

St. Peter, the first Catholic Church, Reading

The church is a perfect example of Gothic architecture. It was designed and built under the supervision of Architect Patrick A. Walsh, of Philadelphia. It is built of Port Deposit granite, with Woodstock granite trimmings and copper cornices. The stonework is a marvel of beauty. St. Peter's enjoys the distinction of being the only church in the United States in which the frames of the rose window and the transoms are made of granite. The sill of the rose window, dressed, weighs five tons.

The vestibule is a fitting introduction to the beautiful interior. The floors and steps, window sills, wainscoting, aisles. etc., are laid in gray and pink Tennessee marble. The transoms of opalescent glass and jewels, the beveled chipped glass and copper in the numerous doors, etc., are fine examples of domestic art and were furnished by James M. Kase & Co., 511 Washington.

On entering the nave, the beholder is struck by the beauty of the rich interior. The eye wanders from stained glass window to window and finally rests upon the sanctuary with its three altars of solid marble. These altars are magnificent specimens of decorated Gothic, their delicately carved pinnacles and ornaments being in keeping with the rest of the interior. The altars, together with the rest of the marble work, were supplied by the James E. Mahony Co., of Providence. R. I. The three altars, communion rail, wainscoting of the sanctuary, reredos and panels are composed of Skyros and Carrara marbles. The former was procured from an island in the Grecian Archipelago, from ancient quarries, discovered after centuries of disuse.

The crucifix, in the exposition niche of the main altar, procured by Father Cleary in Rome, is a masterpiece of ecclesiastical art. It is about three feet high and the entire cross was decorated by workers in mosaic of the Vatican, with beautiful designs, including faithful representations of St. Peter's, the Forum, Coliseum, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore and other notable buildings of the Eternal City.

The grand pipe organ, costing $6,500, is a memorial to the late William and Catharine Nolan and was placed by their children. It is of dark oak and was built by the Austin Organ Company, of Hartford, Conn., and for its size is said to stand unchallenged in this part of the country. It is not lacking in architectural beauty and is strongly in keeping with its surroundings. The instrument is divided and so constructed as not to hide the large window be­hind it. It was at first supposed that this could not be done and that either the window or organ would suffer, but the difficulty has been happily overcome.

The 20 painted windows are from the studio of George Boos, of Munich, and most accurate and exquisite portrayals of scenes in the life of Christ. They were designed by a single artist to insure similarity of treatment, are originals in part, while the coloring was entrusted to another artist exclusively. Twenty men were employed 18 months in their production. The result of this method is a marvelous set of windows that would be equaled with difficulty. So meritorious was this work considered by the jury at the St. Louis Exposition, that it was awarded a grand prize.

All are made exclusively of antique glass. The full sized drawings were the work of a well known Munich artist. The blending of colors in the different windows is exceptionally beautiful, rich and yet subdued. The attention of the beholder is drawn to the very expressive faces and the modeling of hands and feet. All the groups are very rich in figures and the bases and canopies, rich in coloring and design, form a beautiful frame to the pictures.

The pews are substantial and roomy and were made by the Grand Rapids Furniture Company. They are of Gothic design and Cathedral finish and were donated by Patrick Devlin at a cost of $1,825.

The Baptistry is located in the rear of the church and is composed of Pentalikon and Skyros marbles, while the lid of the font is of solid bronze. There is a receptacle for holy oils, on which is a panel taken from a convent at Cluny. This latter is a rare 15th century painting, done on copper, of the Immaculate Conception, and was secured at the time of the disposal of religious orders in France. This is the gift of Mrs. J. Lancaster Repplier, who placed it in memory of John George Haggerty.

Among the possessions of Father Cleary, which he intended to place in the new church, he prized none more highly than one procured by his friend, Monsignor C. G. O'Keefe, during their joint visit to Rome at the interesting period of the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the election of Pius X.

This is nothing less than the trowel presented by the French Government to Leo XIII., and used by his hands, at the close of the jubilee year of 1900, to seal up the holy door which connects the Vatican Palace with St. Peter's, and which is opened but once in 50 years.

The handle is of ebony, the trowel itself about eight inches in length by four inches at the widest part, and is of solid silver.

On the bottom is engraved the Papal coat-of-arms: on the face the inscription "R. F.., S. P., ANJVB, MCM," a translation of which would read: "The French Republic to the Sovereign Pontif, Year of Jubilee, 1900."

It is most unusual to allow such a highly honored article to be taken from the Vatican collection, and only through Monsignor O'Keefe's close friendship with the College of Cardinals was it rendered possible.

He, in turn, knowing the intense devotion Father Cleary had to the work in hand, most unselfishly gave it to him.

Appreciating that the gift was unique, and could have no counterpart in the world, Father Cleary treasured it for the church. It was placed in the rear of the tabernacle.

Alongside of the south tower of the magnificent edifice is the tomb of the lamented Father Cleary. A granite Mausoleum marks his grave. This in addition to the main altar, was erected as a memorial by the parishioners.

No greater tribute could have been paid to Father Cleary, than that of his intimate friend, Bishop Shanahan, of the Harrisburg diocese, which will be found on the bronze tablet on front of the mausoleum. It is as follows:

In memory of the Rev. James Edward Cleary. Born Feb, 1854 - Ordained, June 18, 1879. Rector of this parish from Oct., 1889, until his death, April 8, 1904.

The congregation of St. Peter's parish in gratitude, veneration and love erected this monument February 18, 1905.

A man of gentle heart, of cultured mind, of distinguished presence.

A priest of apostolic zeal, of glowing eloquence, of fruitful ministry.

A pastor of unrelenting devotion, of tender solicitude, of complete self effacement.

Whose life sought only to be hidden with Christ in God. (Coloss. 3:3.)

Yet shown forth as from a candlestick (Matt. 5:15) in. the house of his Master.

Whose merits no graven record shall so well declare, as this church which be had rebuilt.

Whose labors to prepare his people for a house not made with bands, eternal in Heaven (2 Cor. 5:1).

No stone shall so enduringly commemorate, As the faithful hearts of his flock. Eternal rest give unto him. 0 Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

The murals which adorn the ceiling of St. Peter's Church were painted by Count Berthold von Imhoff, a famous painter of religious art works. He was born Jan. 14, 1868, in Karlsruhe, Germany. During the time he lived in Reading, approximately 1900-1913, he was a member of St. Paul's Parish. He painted many churches in the area.

St. Peter's Church Murals

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