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The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Presently Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen

Library of Congress. 1855 view of Harrisburg

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was built in 1826, and retains its Gothic revival architectural style. In 1932, St. Stephen’s became, and still is, the cathedral of the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and is the seat of its bishop. Today’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. Stephen is a contributing property in the Harrisburg Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also one of a few Harrisburg churches that existed during the Civil War.

The women  appointed to the original Home for the Friendless Board of Managers in 1866 were Mrs. Mary R. Leacock and Mrs. Anne Buehler Lamberton.

Further Historical Retrospection

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 Episcopal Church retains 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 that is still in use today was installed in the church tower. 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 occured in 1932. The building experienced several additions including those in 1880, 1894 and in 1901.

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. Its first replacement was in 1880, followed by a new Moller organ in 1902, and then 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, it is 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, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School was founded in the House in 1978. It has since expanded into a converted former parking garage to the rear of the property. These transitions represent a creative adaptive reuse of the structure while also providing an alternative private education for students in grades one through eight and 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. Erected as a single-family residence in 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. Continuing 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.