St. Boniface Church 1855 to 1975
Our St. Boniface Church, the oldest Catholic parish in Williamsport and the second oldest in Lycoming County, is distinctive in its rich German origins, notable pastors, and proud parishioners.
"We have built a house to His name, that He might dwell there forever" —11 Par. 6:2. Comments spoken on August 3, 1975 during the dedication of our magnificent new St. Boniface Church.
Patron Saint of the Parish
No chronological history of our parish would be complete without first giving a thumbnail sketch of its patron saint, St. Boniface. So to renew our knowledge of our affectionately called "The Apostle of Germany", St. Boniface was born in 680 at Crediton, Devonshire, England. He entered a Benedictine monastery in Exeter at the age of 13, and afterwards settled at Nursling, in Hampshire, where he became a priest at the age of 20. He traveled to Rome in 718 and received the authorization of Pope Gregory ll to preach the gospel to all the tribes of Germany. He went first to Thuringia and Bavaria, then labored three years in Friesland, and traveled through Hesse and Saxony baptizing multitudes. In 724 Pope Gregory called him to Rome, consecrated him bishop and furnished him with letters to Charles Martel and all princes and bishops requesting their aid in his pious work.
Returning to Germany, he destroyed the objects of heathen worship, founded churches and convents and called to his aid priests, monks and nuns from England whom he appointed throughout the various countries. In recognition of his eminent services Gregory III named him archbishop and primate of all Germany with power to establish bishoprics wherever he saw fit. In 754 while traveling in West Friesland, he was fallen upon by a band of heathens. Together with converts who accompanied him, all were put to death on June 5, 755. The remains of St. Boniface were taken to Fulda. In the abbey there is still shown a copy of the gospels written by him, with a leaf stained with his own blood. How fortunate to have this man of God our Church's namesake.
The first German Catholics to settle in Williamsport were evidently the Adam Engel and Andreas Hiller families, which emigrated from Bavaria in 1834. Mrs. Margaretha Schneider, daughter of Adam Engel; the widow Margaretha Staib; Mrs. Barbara Seewald and the Misses A. Hiller and Corolina Hiller, daughters of Andreas Hiller. In 1837 Reverend Nicholas Steinbacher, S. J., founded a German Catholic Parish in the valley, now Bastress. Consequently, the majority of German Catholics who came to this region settled in Bastress. Adam Engel and his family likewise moved there, after having lived in Williamsport for nine years. About the middle of the last century Germans in large numbers came to America. Many of these immigrants came to Williamsport, then only a small village. The majority of these settlers were natives of Baden and Wurtemberg.
In 1835 the Reverend Pastor (name unknown) of Danville, Pennsylvania, visited the few Catholics in Williamsport. Both at this time and later the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered in the homes of Adam Engel and Andreas Hiller. Later in 1849 Reverend Father Drier came from Bastress and celebrated the Holy Sacrifice in the home of Alois Stopper. Divine Services are likewise known to have been held in the homes of Patrick Reilly, M. Myers and Patrick McFadden. At the dawn of the fifties Reverend George GostenscHnig, pastor of Milton, celebrated Holy Mass at the home of a Mr. McGraw, as well as at the home of the aforementioned Alois Stopper.
First Church 1855
In 1853 a few German Catholics held several meetings for the purpose of discussing the possibilities of establishing a parish and of erecting a church. With this in view they conferred with the Most Reverend John Nepomecene Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia. His Excellency, gladly granted permission for the erection of a church. Fully confident of God's assistance the little group of Catholics courageously began the great task. On January 23, 1854, on the corner of Washington and Anthony Streets, today St. Boniface Street—a plot of land 52 x 208 feet was purchased.
The parish at that time, so far as can be ascertained, consisted of the following German members:
Johann M. Vogel
Joseph Stopper and his sons
(Sylvester, Fridolin, Valentine and Felix)
In 1854 a wooden church 24 x 48 feet was erected. Mr. August Koch presented a large portion of the building materials. By order of Bishop Neumann, Reverend Anton Grundner, 0.S.B., pastor at Bastress, laid the cornerstone. That same summer the church was completed, with a church bell installed. It certainly must have been a day of joy when this small group of splendid Catholics had their own little church. Even though poor and small, it was nonetheless a sacred spot, where they could attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and hear the word of God in their mother tongue. The Reverend Gostenschnig of Milton came twice monthly to hold divine services. He discharged this duty from 1854 until 1857. First resident pastor was the Father Johann B. Bach. He administered the parish from January 1857 until September 1861. During his time the house adjoining the church was purchased and converted into a rectory. He enlarged the church by building an annex 22 x 22 feet. Father likewise opened a school and purchased a plot of land for a cemetery. This cemetery was blessed by the Reverend Bishop Neumann. His Excellency also administered the Sacrament of Confirmation here several times.
Without a school no Catholic Parish is complete. German Priests and German Catholics have always recognized this fact, and in consequence, wherever such was possible, a Catholic School stands beside the church. In 1865, the Reverend John Bach, then pastor of our parish, had opened a school. His successor likewise saw to it that school was conducted for several months each year. The first teachers of the school were Theresia Greiser, Magdalena Steinbacher, Rose Brennan, and a Mr. Thomson. The Reverend John N. Koeper reorganized the school in 1870. He invited Carl Cremer, a teacher who had college training, from Germany to St. Boniface Parish. Mr. Cremer was engaged as organist and teacher at St. Boniface Parish until 1875. In 1874, Reverend Father Koeper entrusted the school to the Sisters of Christian Charity, who because of the Kulturkampf, had to leave Germany. The Sisters arrived here at the end of 1874. Sister Germana and her three associates assumed charge of the school.
The enrollment then was approximately 80 children. Each year it increased, so that by 1896, the enrollment in the eight classes numbered 300. It was during Father Steinkirchner's pastorate that St. Mary's High School had its inception. He purchased the ground just west of the church and erected a school building, which at that time, was known as St. Mary's Academy, and in this building, the four years of high school were conducted for many years. In 1897, the new school was completed. Father Koeper blessed the same on Wednesday, October 13. To meet increased enrollment demands in the school, Father Borr in May 1939, leased the vacated William Penn public school from the Williamsport School District for $300.00 per year. Thus, in September of the same year, this building became known as St. Mary's High School, the old academy becoming an additional grade school. Father Post's immediate concern was the purchasing of the former Penn Street Public School building, which since May 12, 1939, had been leased from the Williamsport School District to house St. Mary's High School students. This was accomplished October 28, 1943. A cherished memory to many.
The Second Church — 1875
Now there was need to consider the building of a new church. Our parishioners, under the leadership of their Reverend Pastor, took immediate steps for the erection of a new church. In 1873, Mr. F. Himpler, a New York architect, drew up the plans for the new structure. The cost of the building was estimated at $35,000. The church was gothic in style and was undoubtedly one of the finest in the Diocese of Scranton. The genuine church architecture in every least detail was executed with artistic skill, and anyone possessing a taste for architectural beauty must recognize its merits. The width of the church facing Washington Boulevard was 56 feet and the length was 145 feet. The tower, 145 feet high, was built in 1908. On June 22, 1873, the Most Rverend Bishop of Scranton, William O'Hara, blessed the cornerstone. The Reverend Johann Goerg Hieber of the Society of Jesus preached the sermon at this ceremony. Next followed two years of solid, hard work and many a great sacrifice. Finally, the new church was completed. In March 1875, it was ready for occupancy. On Sunday, September 17, 1875, the Most Reverend William O'Hara solemnly dedicated this new abode to the service of the Lord.
- 1835 Services held in homes with visiting pastors officiating.
- 1853 German Catholics met to discuss forming a parish and erecting a building. 1855 Wooden church built and occupied.
- 1855 First baptism in the church.
- 1857 First Resident Pastor, Rev. John B. Bach.
- 1875 Second Church was built (the one that burned down).
- 1880 New Convent erected.
- 1897 St. Boniface School completed.
- 1939 William Penn School leased (bought in 1943).
- 1955 100th Anniversary of the First Church.
- 1972 St. Boniface Church destroyed by fire (December 5, 1972).
- 1975 100th Anniversary of the Second Church (destroyed by fire in 1972).
- 1975 New Church built and dedicated (August 3, 1975).
In 1880 on the property that had been purchased on St. Boniface Street a new convent was erected for our Sisters who had been working here since 1874. It cost approximately $4,000.00. In 1881, four acres of land were purchased for a new cemetery at Wyoming and Penn Streets. With the wholehearted cooperation of our parishioners in 1907, the Reverend J. E. Steinkirchner was able to make renovations in the church, the school, and the Sisters' convent amounting to $12,000.00. An annex was added to the convent. To meet the increased needs of the sisters and to relieve the overcrowded condition of the convent, it was found necessary to enlarge the convent. During the summer of 1952, a large annex was added to the convent building, together with extensive alterations and improvements to the old section. This was done at a cost of $50,000.00.
On October 18, 1883 the Most Reverend Bishop blessed the new cemetery. Reverend Peter Christ of Scranton preached the sermon, and on August 23, 1908, the magnificent granite cross erected on the cemetery was blessed. Between 1857-1861 Father Johann B. Bach had purchased the plot of land for a cemetery.
The Tower and Tower Bells
On Sunday, August 18, 1894, at the request of the bishop, Father Koeper blessed a new bell, the gift of Mrs. Magdalena Steinbacher, nee Rung. Named St. Joseph, it weighed 1516 pounds and cost $227.00. The Reverend E. Garvey and Reverend Carl Goeskel assisted the Reverend Pastor at this blessing. In 1907, the church tower was enlarged to a height of 145 feet. The tower clock was presented by Mr. John Coleman. On Sunday, August 16, 1908, the Most Reverend Bishop M. J. Hoban, blessed the four new bells. The bells were named: 1 - "Andreas Maria," the gift of Mr. Andreas Birkle, weighing 3030 pounds and costing $1,200; 2 - "The Sacred Heart," presented by the John Krimm estate. This weighed 840 pounds and cost $315. 3 - Then "St. Boniface," presented by the Young Men's Sodality, weighed 600 pounds and cost $200. 4 - "Immaculate," donated by the Young Women's Sodality, weighed 450 pounds, and cost $165. God willing these bells will ring again in the near future.
Our beloved church was destroyed by fire on Tuesday, December 5, 1972. The people of Williamsport and surrounding towns in the West Branch Valley, were shocked to read the evening headlines: "St. Boniface Church Destroyed by Fire" and "Spectacular Early Morning Blaze Ruins City Landmark."
It is believed the fire started in the boiler room in the basement under the Altar, and crept up the inside walls to the tower, and continuing until the entire interior was consumed, leaving only charred wood and ashes. Saved were the statues of St. Boniface and of St. Joseph, and also some sacred vessels. Undestroyed were the five bells in the Tower, which since 1908 have chimed for the residents of the city's East End. This was a reminder that the community at large shared with the congregation and clergy of St. Boniface the sense of loss of a landmark and universal symbol of Christianity.
Msgr. Eugene J. Clark, Pastor of St. Boniface since 1970 and a native of Williamsport, has known the Church since boyhood. Said he, "Sometimes disasters pull people together. We were planning to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Church in 1975. Now, we plan to dedicate a new church in 1975—God willing and the people helping."
The Present Church — 1975
Under the direction of Pastor Msgr. Eugene Clark, the NEW CHURCH planning began immediately. Committees were formed and fund raising campaign was put in place. Pledges approached $400,000. The architechtural firm of Brooks & Redfoot was chosen to design the church. In keeping with the brick structure and slate roof, the materials of brass, bronze and coper were used to maintain the interior character of the church. The Regal peipe organ was designed and built by Fratelli Ruffatti and was shipped from Genoa Italy. The New St Boniface was solemnly dedicated by The Most Reverend J. Carroll McCormick, Bishop of Scranton, on August 3, 1975.