The following summary is information that I have gathered in the course of my research on the Catholic branch of my family. This information would have been extremely useful to me if I had it ten years ago when I was first starting, so I hope that it can now help someone else.
The information on this page is meant as a guide to help you find out which parish your ancestor's might have belonged to and where to look for baptismal, marriage or death records for your Catholic ancestors in the Lehigh Valley area. The churches that I have written to are generally very helpful. I usually include a small donation as a token of appreciation for their assistance.
Please let me know if you find this page helpful. If anyone has additional information to add, or a mistake is noted, please e-mail me. Thanks. Please sign my guestbook!
Catholicism in the Lehigh Valley
In 1681 King Charles II of England granted William Penn a land charter in the American colonies in repayment for a debt owed to Penn's father, Admiral Penn. In his honor the king named the land "Pennsylvania". One of the first laws enacted by William Penn was one providing for religious liberty, allowing freedom of worship to all who acknowledge one God. At that time, only Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had laws protecting an individual's right to practice the religion of his choice. Although immigrants came to the colonies for many reasons, Pennsylvania became a haven for colonists seeking freedom from religious persecution in their countries of origin.
Although the first Catholic came to Pennsylvania in 1683, it was not until 1733 that the first Catholic Church was established in the state. When the Chapel of St. Joseph's was established in Philadelphia, it met with protest from from many of the city residents who argued that the church violated English law. A number of local Quakers came to the aid of the fledgling Catholic congregation and approached the Lt. Governor on their behalf. It was determined that under Penn's "Law of the Liberty of Conscience" there were no legal grounds for opposing the church. Thus, the 22 Irish and 15 German parishioners were allowed to worship in their new Chapel.
As more Catholic families began to arrive in the colony, the congregation of St. Joseph's began to outgrow the small church. Over the next sixty years, five more Catholic churches were established in Pennsylvania. One of these was the Mission of Goshenhoppen in Bally, Washington Twp., Berks County, Pa. The church was founded by the Palatinate immigrant, Father Schneider, in 1741 to serve the needs of the German community. The church was later known as the Most Blessed Sacrament Church, then as St. Paul's .
The priests of the Goshenhoppen parish were hard pressed to serve all of Catholic families in Berks, Lehigh, Northampton, and Bucks county. There are also records of some Chester county and western New Jersey families in the church records. The priests would ride a circuit through the towns of the above listed counties and hold Sunday services once or twice a month.
It was not until 1929 that the first Catholic Parish of Northampton County, St. Bernard's was established in Easton, Pennsylvania to serve the needs of the area's growing German Catholic population ( The church was not built until abt. 1835).St. Bernard's is often considered the 'Mother church' of Catholicism in the Lehigh Valley. It not only served the needs of Catholics in Northampton County, but also those in the counties of Carbon, Schuylkill, and upper Bucks. By 1852, the congregation had become so large that a second church, St. Joseph's. was built in South Easton. Initially a small church with a one-room school in the basement, St. Joseph's was rebuilt in 1890 to accommodate its large congregation. That church burned down in 1911. The present church, which takes up one whole city block and seats 800, was built in 1915.
Meanwhile, in 1854, the German Catholics in Bethlehem, Pa. began holding services in the home of Nicholas Miller on Union St. In 1856 they built a church on Union St. between Main and New. The Church of the Nativity of our Lord was dedicated on Christmas day by the Reverend John Tanzer. Known to most people as the German Catholic Church, it hosted Sunday Mass once a month. Up until 1860, it was attended by priests from the Easton churches. Father Tanzer was succeeded by Reverend Joseph Schrader, then by Reverend Rudolph Kuenzer. He was succeeded by Reverend Michael McEnroe in 1862. From 1860 to 1871 the church was attended to by the priests of the Allentown church.
The German Catholics in the Catasaqua area founded St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in 1857. Burials at this church were usually to the Gethsemane Cemetery (Catasaqua). A second Catholic Church was not needed in Catasaqua until 1902 when the growing Slovak population decided to build a church of their own, St. Andrew's.
Back in Bethlehem, there was a huge influx of immigrants to work in the many new industries along the river. Many of these families were Catholic and by 1863, it was apparent that there was a need for a Catholic Church on the South Side of Bethlehem. Father McEnroe started the Church of the Holy Infancy on the corner of E. Fourth and Locust Sts. It grew so quickly that the original church had to be replaced by a larger one. Construction of the church was started in 1882 and was completed in1886. During this period of construction, church services were held in St. Michael's Hall on E. Fourth St., near Spruce. In 1894, a school and convent were erected and given into the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Church of the Holy Ghost, also in South Bethlehem, was established in 1871. It was rebuilt in 1895 to accommodate its growing congregation. By 1891, the large influx of Catholic Slovaks to the area resulted in the establishment of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. This church was rebuilt in 1912. At the turn of the century, a large number of Polish Catholics had begun immigrating to the area. They established their own church, St. Stanislaus, on Hayes St. in 1905. Our Lady of Pompeii was dedicated in 1923 to serve the Italian Catholics in South Bethlehem. Later, many Portuguese also attended this church.
Meanwhile, back in Easton, the parish of St. Michael's was established by Lithuanian immigrants in 1916. They purchased the former Heptosoph Hall and Brainerd's Church on Spring Garden St. and did extensive remodeling.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Roseto has an interesting history. In 1887 a group of immigrants from Roseto Valfortore, Italy settled in a wooded area in Washington Township. This area was initially called "Little Italy", but later came to be known as Roseto. These Catholic immigrants initially traveled to Easton to attend services at St. Bernard's when they were able to. But they soon established their own congregation. In the beginning, services were conducted in a makeshift tent by a visiting priest. At some point, a simple frame church was built and Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the Patroness of the small Congregation. In 1923, the cornerstone was laid for the new stone church.
In nearby West Bangor, St. Roch's Church was dedicated in 1921. The first mass was celebrated by Rev. James Lavezzari, from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. He was assisted by Rev. Joseph Ducci. Some of the priests who have served at the church: Rev. James P. Gallagher, 1937- ?; Rev. James R. Dickert, 1965-1969; Very Rev. Robert M. Forst, 1969-1972; Rev. James Tulio, 1972; Rev. Joseph Shehan, Apr. 1972- ?
Up until the early 1900's there were a number of Catholic families in the northern part of the county who were faced with the weekly trek to Bethlehem, Easton or Catasaqua in order to attend Sunday services. Finally, in 1908, Holy Family Parish was established in the borough of Nazareth. This was still a good four mile drive for the families in Bath, who still depended on horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Finally in 1915, the old motion picture house in Bath was turned into a temporary place of worship. Father Greifenberg traveled to Bath every two weeks to celebrate mass with the two dozen catholic families who now lived there. By 1920 they were able to build a church, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
St. Rocco's Catholic Church was constructed in Martin's Creek in 1937. The $18,000 dollar church took four months to build and was officially dedicated on Sept. 26, 1937.
St. Ursula's church was built in the Borough of Fountain Hill (adjacent to South Bethlehem) in 1919. The original building was large enough to hold both the church and the grade school. A new church was built next to the old building in 1966 and the older building is now used solely for the school. The school is now called Holy Child School.
St. Anne's Catholic Church on Easton Avenue and Washington Ave. in Bethlehem was founded in 1929.
The first Catholic Church in Allentown, Lehigh County, Pa. Was the Church of the ImmaculateConception. Although opened in October of 1857, it was officially dedicated in May of 1858. Almost from the start there was much dissension between the German speaking members of the congregation and the English speaking members. In 1862, Reverend Garvey was put in charge of the English speaking congregation at Immaculate Conception and Reverend Ernest H. Herman was told to take the German speaking members and go build a new church. Although it took some time, he did just that, and opened the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1870. It is located on Fourth and Pine Streets in Allentown. A new church was built by the congregation of the Church of The Immaculate conception. Although the new church was not completed until 1883, the cornerstone was laid in Sept. of 1873. The new church had a seating capacity of 1200.
In June, 2008, The Allentown Diocese of the Catholic Church announced the closings of 1/3 of its parishes. The restructuring was in response to diminishing church attendance and a growing shortage of priests. For a list of parishes that closed and the parishes that they were merged into, click this link.
It is my understanding that the records of the parishes that close will be transferred to the ones they are merging with. Church Mergers