In June of 1741, two German-speaking Jesuit priests traveled from Maryland up the Susquehanna and Conestoga Rivers. They landed at Lancaster Town. Within two years the priests had built a log chapel on lots purchased from the European landholder, James Hamilton. Excluding the French, Spanish and Maryland settlements, it was the fourth Catholic congregation in the colonies. [1) St. Francis Xavier in Maryland (1634); 2) St. Joseph in Philadelphia (1733); 3) Sacred Heart in Conewago (1734); and 4) St. Mary’s, Lancaster (1741).
The first pastors furnished statistics that count the Catholics in Lancaster County in 1757 as: 212 Germans (108 men and 94 women) and 49 Irish (22 men and 27 women).
The first chapel was destroyed by fire in 1760. For nearly two years the parish was without a suitable place of worship. During this time, plans for a new church were begun – the stone church. The cornerstone was laid in early 1762, and the church was completed later that year. The new church was made of limestone, which was hewn into rectangular form. There is a tradition that tells the women of the congregation came daily to mix the mortar, while the men erected the building with stones they had gathered from the fields. It was considered a “very fine and commodious structure,” and was built over the place where the log chapel had stood. It did not face Vine Street as does the present church but was built in keeping with a centuries-old custom that during the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the priest and congregation would face toward the East, the place of origin of Christianity and the scene of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Around the time of the building of the stone church, the parish became known as St. Mary’s. It was formerly called the Mission of St. John Nepomucene. No one is certain exactly when this name change took place.
Language differences, a problem for many years at St. Mary’s, were resolved in 1849. The Germans established the Catholic Faith in Lancaster, and it was they who were most numerous for many years. However, it was the heavy Irish immigration in later years that made it difficult to accommodate all who came to Mass on Sundays at St. Mary’s. In 1849 the parishioners sent a petition to Bishop Kenrick in which they presented the need for another church in Lancaster. The new congregation chose the title “St. Joseph’s” for the new church. The bishop wrote that it was designated “for the use of the German Catholics of the city.” The church opened in December of 1850. For some time thereafter, St. Joseph’s was known as the “German Church” and St. Mary’s as the “Irish Church”.
The departure of the German Catholics from the parish did not eliminate the overcrowding. The continuing influx of Irish Catholics made the need for a larger church more and more obvious. It was decided to build the new church on the original grounds – but west of the old church. The beautiful stone church (at that time, one of the oldest buildings in the city) would not need to be torn down to make way for the new church. In fact the old stone church remained in place and served as a hall for many fairs and festivals until 1881 when it was removed to make way for the present school building. Ground was broken for the new church in 1852, and the cornerstone was laid by the Right Reverend John N. Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia, August 15, 1852.
The stones used to construct the foundation walls of the new church came from the old jail at King and Prince Streets being torn down at that time. Christopher Hagar purchased the old jail site and sold the stone to St. Mary’s contractor, Hayden Smith, who had built the new courthouse. In 1867 a fire caused by a defective flue heater in the basement nearly destroyed the new St. Mary’s Church. It was so badly damaged that extensive reconstruction was necessary. New plans were drawn. The walls were left standing, but their height was increased. A new roof with gables was added. It was also necessary to refinish and refresco the whole interior, construct a new floor and repair the organ. The rebuilt church was rededicated May 3, 1868.
In 1881, the old stone church was removed and construction of the present convent and school building was begun. From 1885 to 1887 many changes were brought about, giving the church most of the structural appearance it has today. The sanctuary was enlarged and the beautiful Gothic arches were constructed. The new side chapels were formed after St. Peter’s in Rome. A large stained glass window was added on each side of the sanctuary. In 1886 three paintings by Filippo Costaggini were completed. “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin” above the main altar, “The Annunciation” above the Blessed Virgin altar, and “The Flight Into Egypt” above the St. Joseph altar.
From 1888 to 1897, the memorial stained glass windows were put in place. The marble statue of Mary was completed, the altars were installed, and the statues of St. Anne and St. Joseph, as well as the hand-painted, relief-sculptured Stations of the Cross, were added. Since then, several restoration and renovation projects culminated in the 250th Anniversary celebration in 1991.