History of Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena Parish

Saint Catharine of Siena Parish was founded on October 8, 1919 when Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, appointed the Reverend John C. Phelan as pastor of the new church in the west end of Allentown. Property was acquired from Mrs. Leonard Sefring for $85,000 (= $1.2M in 2016 dollars), who in turn donated $15,000 to reduce the original cost of the parish complex to $70,000. The Sefring home was converted to a rectory and chapel. Father Phelan celebrated two Masses at the rectory on November 16, 1919. Two weeks later the first marriage performed at St. Catharine's Parish united C.J. Kurtz and Mary Erdman in Holy Matrimony. By the Spring of 1920 parishioners began converting a stable into a chapel. Surely Our Lord showered His love on these pioneers who were preparing a stable for His son as He had done centuries ago in Bethlehem.

Cardinal Dougherty came to this humble chapel to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to forty-five parishioners in September 1920. The lovely chapel, which was carved from a stable and carriage house, faithfully served St. Catharine's parisihioners until 1927. Under the leadership of such men as James Gaffney, Eugene Gorman, William Kanehann, Sr., and Wilbur Price, $30,000 was raised for the construction of a combination church, school, and convent. This was begun in June, 1926 and completed in time for the celebration of Mass on Christmas Day, 1927. The building still stands as the Cathedral Elementary School at 210 North Eighteenth Street. St. Catharine of Siena School opened on September 4, 1928 with a grand enrollment of sixty-one pupils and a faculty of four Sisters of St. Joseph. At its opening the school included only the first five grades, but by the school year 1931-1932 all eight grades were functioning. In 1937 the Sisters moved into a new convent, permitting the school to expand to the third floor.

The Sisters used 219 North Eighteenth Street as the new convent. The years between 1937 and 1954 saw a rapid growth of the parish, coupled with all-around improvements to the parish complex. Organizations quickly formed - the Altar Boys Society was started in 1938, as was Boy Scout Troop 74, sponsored by the Holy Name Society. The Women's Alliance formed in 1942 and assisted the WWII effort by purchasing war bonds, making surgical dressings, rolling bandages and working with the Red Cross. In 1944, extensive repairs were made to the building which served as Church and school, and a cafeteria was formed to serve milk and soup to children who found it difficult to travel home at noon-time. Parish debts were retired in November 1949 and parishioners looked forward to a new and larger church. On June 9, 1952, Reverend Monsignor Leo Fink turned over the first spadeful of earth at the blessing and ground-breaking for the new church.

A few months later, at the laying of the cornerstone on April 26, 1953, the Most Reverend Joseph M. McShea said in part: "It is my privilege as Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia, representing the Most Reverend Archbishop, to have placed on these foundations the cornerstone of this Sacred House of God which is eminently yours - it belongs to you faithful, loyal people of St. Catharine's." The sacred house of God is truly a masterpiece of architecture, as witnessed by those who attended the dedication ceremonies and Solemn Pontifical Mass on April 25, 1954. The building is designed in a colonial style similar to the restoration of the early colonial buildings in Williamsburg, Va. The exterior is faced with a variegated salmon brick trimmed with buff Indiana limestone, and at the crossing formed by the transept, there is a tall spire surmounted by a stainless steel cross. The windows of colonial glazed antique cathedral glass are eloquent reminders of the life of the Christian family, from Nativity to Eternity.

The parish complex continued to grow. In May, 1957 the convent was expanded with the purchase of property at 213 N. 18th Street. The School enrollment also expanded and a $150,000 Annex was built in 1958 at the corner of Eighteenth and Emmet streets. The Annex housed six classrooms for the seventh and eighth grades, with the upper floor serving as a gymnasium. The year 1961 brought the surprising news of the creation of the Diocese of Allentown, carved from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and consisting of five counties in eastern Pennsylvania. A great honor was bestowed on St. Catharine of Siena parish - the church would become the Cathedral Church of the new Diocese. The Most Reverend Joseph McShea, D.D. was installed as the first Bishop of Allentown on April 11, 1961 as St. Catharine's became the Cathedral Church. In May the Bishop presided over the first ordination rites to be held in Allentown. By September, 1961, The Cathedral Choir, under the direction of Father Angelo Della Picca, had been established. The parish was now moving into the years of Vatican II and many changes were evident. The first "Mass in English" was celebrated March 7, 1965 and a "Folk Mass" was celebrated on May 13, 1968 in conjunction witht the closing of the high school CCD classes. One of the statutes enacted at the First Synod of Allentown permitted the use of instruments other than the organ, such as guitars and bass fiddles, for the purpose of liturgical worship.

In 1964 the school Annex building was renovated, and what had been a spacious gymnasium now housed nine classrooms on two floors, bringing the number of classrooms in the Annex to fifteen. That same year the kindergarten, opened in 1946, was closed to provide more space for primary education classes. The school reached peak enrollment of 1,400 and from September 1965, until June 1968, the classrooms numbered thirty. In 1968 a school was built at neighboring St. Thomas More parish and the Cathedral School enrolled 732 children in twenty-two classrooms from grades 1 through 8. The first Parish Council was established in June 1969 when over one thousand parishioners elected 12 members to work alongside 6 clergy, including pastor Monsignor Francis J. Donnelly. Bishop McShea concelebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, October 5, 1969, marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the Cathedral Parish. Among the nine hundred persons attending the Mass were forty members of the parish's original families and many priests and Sisters who have served the parish or who have entered religious life from the parish.

Excerpted from The Cathedral of Saint Catharine of Siena. Portions Copyright © 1970 Custombook, Inc., Ecclesiastical Color Publishers.

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