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St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church





The Apostle of Indies was born at the castle of Xavier in Navarre, Spain on Tuesday of Holy Week April 7,1506 of noble descent. At the age of 18 he went to Paris to study philosophy. In 1528 he met St. Ignatius Loyola and became a changed man, “I have heard our great molder of men, Ignatius, declare that Francis Xavier was, in the beginning, the stiffest clay he had ever handled ... " Juan Polanco.

Francis was among the first seven who took vows in the Society of Jesus (founded by Ignatius) on the feast of Mary's Assumption in 1534. On June 24, 1537, feast of St John the Baptist, Francis was ordained a priest with Ignatius and four others.

"Francis, go and set the world on fire." (St. Ignatius) In 1541 he set sail for India, which was to be the field of his labors for the rest of his life and landed at Goa, a city he completely reformed. From there he traveled on to Malaca, in present day Malaysia; the Molucca Islands, now part of Indonesia; Mindanao, in the Philippines; and in Japan (where he was the 1st missionary) and returned to India in 1551.

 In 1552 he then turned his eyes to China. He was seized by a fever on November 20th on the island of Sancian (off the China coast) where he died on December 3, 1552 at the age of 46. He was canonized in 1602 by Pope Clement VII.

During his life, a life filled with enthusiasm and joy, he converted many to Christianity. His success is legendary.

   "We cannot all be actual missionaries to the distant lands and to people who are still in darkness; but through those who God has chosen for this very special work the whole community prays, collaborates and works among the nations." (Ad gentes, 37).

Present in our church we have a statue (positioned over one of the confessionals) of St. Francis Xavier, which was designed by Leif Neandross of the Ram­busch Decorating Co. and carved in wood in Italy. The front window (near the Blessed Mother's altar depicts St. Francis Xavier preaching at Goa against a background of the bay and ships. Our windows were produced in the Rambusch Studio by Joep Nicholas, the distinguished Dutch stained glass artist. The main altar has an impressive oil painting mounted in 1953. The scene, painted by artist Hugo Olms, vividly demonstrates the unbroken religious heritage of the Cross of Christ at Gettysburg. In the center of the large painting, Jesus is seen preaching the Sermon on the Mount, surrounded by his followers of every nation and generation. In the lower left hand corner is St. Francis Xavier and behind him in the background is a building native to India. In the lower right hand corner is another Jesuit missionary Rev. James B. Cotting. "The Builder of Churches." Father Cotting was born in Switzerland on May 23, 1812 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1837 and was ordained a priest on March 29, 1840. He realized our first church on S. Washington St. was too small and set about building a new church at our present site. This church was dedicated on Sunday, July 31, 1853, the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola. Father Cotting served here from December 8, 1849 to August 29, 1853. Appropriately, behind him is the church he built at Gettysburg as it appears today.


Overall, the painting signifies the unity of our Catholic Heritage - whether heard from the lips of Christ Himself, St. Francis Xavier in India or a simple priest at St. Francis Xavier Church here in Gettysburg.. (see 2nd picture of painting)

May we learn from the zeal of St. Francis Xavier so that through us the church may grow throughout the world (Cf. Opening Prayer).



Since many of you, our parishioners, are deeply interested in the history of St. Francis Xavier Parish, we will endeavor in this booklet to provide information found in our three Church History Books (all out of print). The first was published in 1903, the second in 1953 and the third in 1981. For history enthusiasts they are a great source of joy and fascinating facts. We are indeed a church who through the years has responded to the theme now inscribed above our entrance:



        Although Saint Francis Xavier Church was founded in 1831 its history is also part of the rich legacy of the Catholic Jesuits in America and of our own Adams County. These self‑sacrificing pioneers for Christ blazed a trail of missionary zeal across Colonial America that resulted in the founding of our parish.

Over 350 years ago, according to a journal of the French Jesuits at what is now Midland on Lake Huron, French priests were in this vicinity in 1647. They journeyed from Canada to Maryland and then to nearby Hanover and Conewago. They were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Quebec and journeyed south by canoe on the Susquehanna River. They were interested in the welfare of some Catholic Huron Indians who fled from the Iroquois and found refuge with the Susquehannas somewhere in the area of Hanover or Conewago.

At Conewago the devoted Jesuits regularly held Mass in the Indian wigwams long before white settlers arrived on the scene. In 1741, a log chapel was built at the Conewago settlement, making it the first house of worship of the faithful in Adams County.

Today it is difficult for us to comprehend the lack of religious toleration that existed prior to 1776. Only in Pennsylvania did religious freedom survive and flourish. This explains the continuing disparity and variety of religious beliefs that characterize the Commonwealth today. So too, does this explain why an entire community, like McSherrystown, is practically 80% Catholic.

The priests at Conewago are believed to have been responsible for attracting Catholic families to Adams County. Also, it was ideally located across the border from the persecution then going on in Maryland. The area thus became a magnet to Catholics and by 1784 the Conewago congregation numbered over 1,000 - the largest Catholic congregation in all the colonies!


Before 1831, many Gettysburg Catholics would attend Mass by journeying to Conewago, Littlestown or Emmitsburg (a journey of six to seven hours by wagon or on foot.) Sometimes a Jesuit would journey to Gettysburg and hold Mass in private homes.

         The early Catholics in and about Gettysburg were chiefly Germans from  western Germany. They were poor, few and widely scattered. By the American Revolution, 30% of the colonial population was of German origin.

In 1827, the small community of Catholics in Gettysburg took the first step in forming their own parish. Land was donated by Jacob Norbeck. Finally in 1830, amidst sermons delivered in English and German in the County Court House (then located in the present Lincoln Square), the cornerstone was laid and construction began.

The original church was located on the west side of what today is 333 to 349 South Washington Street.

This first church was dedicated on Sunday, October 2, 1831 by Rt. Rev. Francis P. Kenrick, Bishop of Philadelphia) with music by the choir from Emmitsburg, Md. presumably from Mount St. Mary's Seminary.

The church was appropriately named after the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier, whose Jesuit successors had, like himself, brought the Faith to what was once an alien land.

Bishop Kenrick's Visitation Record has the following entry: "October the second day, which was Sunday -  I blessed the church under the invocation of St. Francis Xavier. I blessed also the cemetery adjacent to the church. At the same time I gave (clerical) Tonsure to Patrick Reilly and Jesse Augustine Aughinbaugh, promoted to the order of deaconship Edward Joseph Sourin and Francis Xavier Gartland and ordained to the priesthood Thomas R. Butler. Rev. John B. Purcell, Rector of the Seminary delivered the sermon and five other priests were present and a great number of people."

The young candidates for the priesthood were students at Mount St. Mary's Seminary.

The prominence attained later by some of this small group is striking. Francis Xavier Gartland was to become the first Bishop of Savannah and Thomas R. Butler was later president of Mount St. Mary's College. Father Purcell became Archbishop of Cincinnati. The ordaining prelate was made Archbishop of Baltimore in October 1851.

Also John McCloskey, the first American Cardinal (in 1875), was identified with the early days of our church. Bishop Kenrick states in another of his Visitation: "December the third day of 1832 I gave (clerical) Tonsure and Minor Orders to James Quin, Minor Orders only to Patrick Keilly and Tonsure, Minor Orders and Subdeaconship to John McCloskey and John Reilly in the church of St. Francis Xavier, Gettysburg."




Other important historical developments coincided with the beginning of our parish history in 1831. It was the decade that saw the “Rise of the Common Man" under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Gettysburg held its first public meeting to condemn slavery in 1837 and in 1838 Pennsylvania adopted a new Constitution. Locally, farmers were joining the silkworm craze in droves and by 1839, they had a local silk society with their own constitution. The reason for the craze was the fact that a pound of silk was selling for as much as a barrel of flour ‑ and the worms did all the work! The county was also rapidly growing into a major center for the manufacture of wagons and carriages.

Due to the growth of the community by immigration, the parish congregation expanded so rapidly that in only 20 years the Washington Street church became too small to hold the numerous new faces that now crowded the church.

Where did this flood of immigrants come from? What drove them to leave the lands of their fathers? Why did they migrate to Gettysburg?

The answers to these questions are directly related to historical developments of a religious nature and are, therefore, an important chapter in our story. Individually, our own family history and collectively, our parish history are irrevocably linked to the events of far away lands.

The early parishioners were mostly Germans. At the laying of the cornerstone of the first church in 1831, German as well as English was spoken. The congregation sang in German until 1843, and in 1853, Bishop John Neumann preached in both languages at the dedication of the second Church.

Not only were the early parishioners largely of Germanic origin, it seems that most were from the Rhine River provinces in western Germany commonly known as the Palatinate. The waves of migration from there stemmed from the Reformation begun in Germany by Martin Luther in 1517. This religious event, ironically, occasioned a hundred years of devastating wars that was accompanied by destruction and desolation to millions of homes. One such event, The Thirty Years War, was one of the most tragic in German history. Of the 21 million in Germany's population, 8 million perished in this one war! Generations of oppression followed and the Palatinate, with its exposed Western borders, became a battleground of political and religious fanatics.

In 1681 William Penn now stepped into history by initiating the most remarkable migration in history. Through his travels in Germany and through the distribution of his pamphlets preaching peace and good will, he invited the Germans to come to his Pennsylvania without the wars and persecutions. Penn thus became responsible for diverting a large part of the German population to America. By the American Revolution 30% of the colonial population was of German origin. The Germans' decision to settle in certain areas of the state was based upon the availability of unoccupied lands and employment. They also chose areas like Gettysburg because their native language was still readily spoken.


The early migration of the 17th Century soon became a flood in the 18th and 19th Centuries because of continuing calamities in Germany from the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution of the 1840's which began years of depression and unemployment.

The 2nd largest ethnic group was composed of the Irish immigrants. Father Dougherty, our 1st pastor, was from Ireland and the founder of Gettysburg, James Gettys, although not a Catholic, was the son of Irish immigrants from Donegal.

Many of the same upheavals tearing apart Germany, were also causing Irish immigration. King Henry VIII of England attempted to impose the Reformation upon staunch Irish Catholics and the infamous rule of dictator Oliver Cromwell caused a decline of over 50% in Ireland's population. His regime was characterized by torture and mass deportations of those guilty of practicing the Catholic religion. Land owned by Catholics was confiscated and the entire population of 3,000 in Kiljada was tortured & killed.

Typical of immigrants to Adams County were clans like the MacSherry's (now McSherry) whose large tract of land was seized in Cork County, Ireland by the tyrannical Cromwell thus forcing them to leave their beloved homeland to immigrate to available lands in Adams County. The MacSherry's founded a Catholic Community that we know today as McSherrystown.

So, the new faces that appeared in our pews in the 1840’s were intensely aware of the religious liberty that was theirs. They knew that they were fugitives from the unrelenting political and religious persecutions of the Old World. They had come seeking peace and quiet freedom and became good citizens living in the hope of heaven.




These events are an integral part in the development of our community and congregations. The lives of most parishioners then, and many now, were profoundly affected by these events. It is only through the complete knowledge of this history we can truly begin to grasp the significance of the religious heritage, the historical experience, we call our own.



Rev. Michael Dougherty, S.J., our first pastor, in the early days said Mass here only once a month. At the time of his departure Mass was said twice a month.

        Upon his arrival Rev. James B. Cotting, S.J., our sixth pastor, lost no time in taking steps to meet the expanding needs since it was obvious that the first church was too small. He proved to be an able organizer and worker and very popular with all members in the Gettysburg community.

        The new site was selected on West High Street, our present site. The ground was then occupied by the Lecture Room of the German Reformed Church. The 70’ x 180’ lot was purchased for $750.00 from Ferdinand E. Vandersloot.

        Fr. Cotting, known as “The Builder of Churches” (having built seven churches) was born in Switzerland on May 23, 1812 and ordained a priest on March 28,1840. He served here at St. Francis Xavier from 1849 to 1853.

         In late 1851, the building committee decided that it had raised enough funds to proceed with the construction. So, on December 22, 1851, the two Gettysburg newspapers (The Republican Compiler and The Star & Banner) both carried a public notice for a builder. A month later the building contract was awarded to George and Henry Chritzman.

        During the excavation of the new property, the ground caved in revealing a subterranean tunnel with flowing water. About the same time, George Arnold found the same problem while erecting a building on Lincoln Square.

        What caused the mysterious tunnels? It was explained by the existence of a commercial copper mine that ran beneath the church construction site. The fact that a vein of copper existed under the town was accidentally discovered in 1850, when a well was dug on West Street. A detailed account of the Gettysburg “Old Copper Mine” is recorded in “The History of Cumberland and Adams County,” published in 1886. Due to the ore deposit being limited the enterprise failed and the mine was converted to a well, with an inexhaustible supply of good soft water.

       Today the only visible vestige of the 143 feet deep shaft is a sealed mine shaft entrance that exists in the cellar of the Mercy Convent.

        From 1852 to 1853 the church construction proceeded at a rapid pace. The structure was 90 feet long, 48 feet wide and 40 feet high, with a Roman cupola adding another 20 feet to the top (this is still five feet shorter than the 65 foot steeple of the Washington Street Church.) Fortunately the old church is still with us since the bricks were removed from the “old” Washington Street church and recycled for use in our present church structure.

        There was a fine sanctuary with a sacristy on one side and a confessional on the other. At dedication it contained 64 pews and a center and two side aisles, but there was room for additional pews. (Undoubtedly this stemmed from the experience with the first church becoming too small in less than 20 years.) There was a fine pipe organ in the broad choir gallery that extended from wall to wall over the front entrance. A painting by Francis Stecker, showing St. Francis Xavier raising a dead man to life, was placed in  back of the altar. Above the sacristy there were alcoves from which sermons were sometimes preached. The 400 pound bell was installed from the “old” church until it too, was replaced in 1877 with the new bell weighing 1,233 pounds which continues in use today.

        The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, June 20, 1852 by the new Bishop of Philadelphia, the Rt. Rev. John Nepomucene Neumann, D.D., C.SS.R. It is believed that this was the first cornerstone laying by the Bishop. A year later he returned to dedicate and sanctify the church on July 31, 1853. The date was chosen because it was the feast day of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. On that historic day little did Father Cotting or the assembled parishioners realize that a saint had walked among them. During this dedication day, the saintly emigrant bishop from Bohemia, preached two sermons, one in English and of course, one in German and then administered the Sacrament of Confirmation.

        Less than two months after the dedication, Father Cotting was transferred to Maryland. This news was received with sadness and regret by his faithful parishioners. But, his recognized expertise and leadership talents were now needed elsewhere.          

        Father Cotting was succeeded September 11, 1853 by Rev. Francis Xavier Deneckere, S. J., who was the last Jesuit to serve this congregation. The Jesuits were serving more parishes than they had priests to serve as pastors and could only supply a priest on a part time basis. Father Deneckere was a man of considerable reputation for eloquence and learning. He established the first parish library and Rosary Society. He was born on February 2, 1810 in Bruges, Belgium. He had two sisters who were Notre Dame nuns and a brother who was also a Jesuit and an uncle who was Bishop of New Orleans.

        The first secular pastor appointed here on November 14, 1858 was Rev. Basil A. Shorb, who was born near Littlestown on October 16, 1810. He was  educated at Mt. St. Mary’s College and Seminary, Emmitsburg and ordained December 1834. While he was pastor here he also served St. Ignatius in Buchanan Valley and Immaculate Conception in Fairfield.




 If the issue of the 18th Century American was independence, that of the 19th was slavery. In 1863, that issue would affect the parish in bloody fashion before it was finally resolved. One of the most striking facts of American history is that no peaceful solution was found to the problem of slavery.

        Efforts to abolish slavery began early in America. Thomas Jefferson attempted to condemn the “institution” in the Declaration of Independence, but his southern colleagues forced him to delete the passage.

        Gettysburg’s most prominent abolitionist was Thaddeus Stevens, who served in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Later, he controlled the politics of the nation during and after the Civil War while serving in the United States Congress. Although not a parishioner of SFX Church, Stevens was later baptized a Catholic on his deathbed. (A Gettysburg Catholic, Lydia Smith, was Steven’s housekeeper for ten years and had a great influence upon him.)

        Finally, the issue that could not be resolved peaceably was resolved by a violent Civil War. For two years that war raged throughout the Southern States. Then, in July of 1863, the Confederate Army of Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania and here at Gettysburg met the Northern Army of General George G. Meade. Gettysburg became the most destructive and decisive battle ever fought on American soil. In only three days, 172,000 men were thrown into the epic conflict, and 51,000 – almost one out of three – became casualties.

        Ironically, parishioner Nicholas Codori, who had emigrated from France in 1828 to escape the border conflicts with Germany, now found his farm in the middle of Pickett’s Charge – one of the great charges of military history.

        The first day’s battle was a northern disaster. Of the 18,000 Union Troops in the engagement, 12,000 were casualties, including 6,000 who were captured in the town itself. By July 4th The Battle of Gettysburg was over – the Union was saved.

        Gone were the two armies, but left behind were the dead, dying and injured. Locally, 113 improvised hospitals sprang up to deal with these 51,000 men. SFX Church was the second church to open its doors to the wounded and was in use by noon of July 1st. The most seriously wounded were brought here for amputation and treatment.

        Among the volunteers who served in SFX Church and elsewhere were the Sisters of Charity who came up from St. Joseph College at Emmitsburg, Md. They related: “The Catholic Church was filled with wounded, mutilated men… The first man put in the sanctuary was soon Baptized with truly Christian sentiments. His pain was excruciating and when sympathy was offered to him he said, ‘Oh! What are these pains I suffer in comparison with those my Redeemer suffered for me.’ In these sentiments he died…”


 While they cared for the bodies the Sisters did not neglect the souls of their patients. Many were prepared for the reception of Baptism and many died with these holy women comforting them with assurances of God’s infinite love and mercy. Catholics and Protestants alike were the objects of their tender ministrations and the joy of seeing them die piously was the good sisters’ great reward. A total of 39 sisters contributed their services to the hospitals and one had a surprising experience while administering to the wounded. Sister Serena Klimbiewicz discovered her own brother, Thaddeus, among the wounded. He and Sister had a great uncle, Kosciusko (the famous Polish General) who became an American hero in our War of Independence.

        Since our church had received many of the severely wounded who had required amputations, the medical authorities determined that many of these victims of the conflict were in a critical condition and could not be moved. The church, therefore, continued as a hospital until it was considered safe to move all who were housed there. This occurred at the end of September 1863. While the church was so occupied Mass was said in the front, second floor room at the home of Nicholas Codori at 44 York Street where both citizens and soldiers jammed the room and staircase. Due to the extensive damage done to the church and the subsequent repairs that were required no Mass was held in church until January of 1864.

        The pastor from July 16, 1861 to October 27, 1863 was Rev. Arthur M. McGinnis, who came here as a very young priest. One of the most significant events in our parish history occurred while this young priest was in charge. He died on May 21, 1873 at the age of 38.

        The church was soon repaired, chiefly under the guidance of a very energetic and capable pastor, Father Joseph A. Boll, who began his long and fruitful pastorate on January 4, 1864.

        In 1871 Father Boll installed gas lighting in the church. Also in 1871 he undertook the construction of the present rectory, located on the south side of West High Street, where it is today. Work began on December 1, 1871 and was completed on October 5, 1872 for a cost of $7,000.00 including furnishings and was paid over a period of four years.

        In the spring of 1873 St. Ignatius Parish, Buchanan Valley was separated from our parish.

        Mass was then celebrated the first three Sundays of each month at Gettysburg and the last Sunday of the month at Fairfield.