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The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

Although the founder of Harrisburg, John Harris, Jr., was a member of the Church of England, it was not until 1826 that a permanent Episcopal church building was erected here. The new church on N. Front Street was consecrated on St. John’s Day, 1827, by Bishop William White, the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia and Chaplain of the Continental Congress. What was known as St. Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Church retains to this day its original Gothic Revival-styled exterior and sanctuary. Designed by Harrisburg native Samuel Bryan, Sr., who sat on the building committee, and built by local brick-maker John Dowding, the church’s appearance was said to be inspired by the rural parish churches of England. In 1846, a second bell was installed in the church tower that is still in use today. Before 1865, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contained just one Episcopal Diocese. Territorial restructuring due to western expansion over the ensuing decades led to the creation of the Diocese of Harrisburg in 1904 (now the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania). Official designation of St. Stephen’s as a cathedral would occur in 1932. The building experienced several additions including those in 1880, 1894 and in 1901.

The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

Library of Congress. 1855 View of Harrisburg, Penn.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the church opened several missions in South Harrisburg to serve the poor and needy. The church, known for its music, both sacred and secular, was continuously updating and replacing its church organ, with its first replacement in 1880, followed by a new Moller organ in 1902, and a newer organ in 1937 which was rebuilt in 1973. Plans were initiated in 2023 for its replacement with an advanced state-of-the-art organ.

Next door to the south of the cathedral at 215 N. Front Street is a classic Greek Revival-styled residential structure, erected in 1840 for Irish immigrant William R. Griffith, one of the finest examples of this form of architecture in the Harrisburg area. Now known as the Cathedral House, it was acquired by St. Stephen’s in 1915 for use as the home of the Dean of the Cathedral. Thereafter, the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School was founded in the house in 1978 and has since expanded into a converted former parking garage to the rear of the property, representing a creative adaptive reuse of the structure and also providing an alternative private education for students in grades one through eight while linking Harrisburg’s cultural and educational venues to the learning experience. Directly adjacent to the cathedral to the north at 221 N. Front Street is the Second Empire-styled Chapter House, the cathedral’s administrative center. Likewise erected as a single-family residence and dating to 1870, it completes the trio of cathedral buildings that exhibit a well-preserved cluster of distinctive Harrisburg architectural landmarks.

The Honorable John Crain Kunkel, United State Congressman, was a long-time member of St. Stephen’s and was a generous benefactor of numerous local causes. To continue his legacy, the John Crain Kunkel Foundation has played a significant role in funding such projects as Kunkel Plaza in Riverfront Park and the John Crain Kunkel Center, home to the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, as well as capital projects at Homeland Center.

Banner photo courtesy Jeb Stuart.