Restoration of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hanover, Pennsylvania by Canning Liturgical Arts

One of the most historic churches in America is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (in Conewago Township, Pennsylvania, Diocese of Harrisburg). Declared a minor basilica in 1962, this former Jesuit church built in Federal-style architecture is said to be the oldest stone-built Catholic church in the U.S. 

Recently our friends at Canning Liturgical Arts performed a historic decorative paint and fine art conservation for the basilica. The scope of work performed included a comprehensive preservation approach with extensive plaster repair to the substrate as well as conserving and restoring murals and other decorative treatments.

The initial paint investigations revealed well-preserved original paint designs beneath the existing decorative paint layers. This positive discovery led to the largest paint exposure Canning has encountered, revealing all decorative paint and designs of the original chapel, a unique accomplishment in the preservation industry.

Images of the restoration can be seen here.  

A Fascinating History

The town of Hanover in Pennsylvania and the area of this church is very close to Maryland, where many early Catholic settlers lived in colonial times. In about 1730 the Faith was brought to Conewago from settlers that came from Maryland in search of more land. The parish was therefore established and became an important Jesuit mission foundation. 

The parish was founded by a Jesuit priest by the name of Fr. William Wappeler, SJ, who in 1741 built a log chapel, dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption. It was called "Conewago Chapel," named after the nearby creek of the same name. The parish cemetery dated from the same general time, 1752. 

Construction of the Present Church and the Russian Prince 

As the community continued to grow, a new church was necessitated. The first church was replaced with the present church by its pastor, Fr. James Pellentz, SJ. It opened for services in 1787 and was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a popular Jesuit devotion - the first church in the U.S. dedicated to the Sacred Heart. 

The 2.5 stories high church was constructed from 1785-1787 of typical building materials available in that region. With sturdy local brownstone and 3-foot-thick walls, the church substructure is as solid as a rock. The 80-foot-high steeple was added in 1873 with one bell. The attached rectory also dates from 1787. 

The Servant of God Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin (1770 – 1840), an emigre Russian aristocrat and priest known as "The Apostle of the Alleghenies," spent the first five years of his priesthood at the church from 1795-1799. 

Born in the Netherlands, this fascinating missionary priest was led to America where he was ordained priest and traveled the region as a missionary for forty-one years. He founded Loretto, a two-day journey by horseback to the west, as the first English-speaking Catholic settlement west of the Allegheny wilderness.  

Gifted Artists Contributed 

In 1851 an addition was put on, enlarging the church substantially. At that time an established artist from Austria was hired, Franz Stecker, who in his 30s decorated and painted the interior. His images, especially of the Blessed Trinity, are truly artistic and innovative in their own way, heavily influenced by the Mannerist tradition. 

Other artists also made their contributions. The ceiling painting of the Assumption of our Blessed Mother into heaven was painted in 1844 by an artist by the name of Gebhart and over the main altar is a painting by Rome-trained Filippo Costaggini. Installed in 1887, it depicts Christ appearing to Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque, also with her spiritual director depicted, St. La Colombière,, SJ. Costaggini was the same artist who was one of three renowned painters who worked on the frieze of American history in the rotonda of the US Capitol (he completed his eight-scene contribution in 1889).

All of this led to a sustained and strong Catholic presence in the area that led ultimately to the creation of the Diocese of Harrisburg in 1868.

The Restoration 

After the years-long restoration and conservation, the magnificent project has been brought to completion. Through careful study of old photos and paint sample investigation, the original design decoration schemes and color palettes were successfully determined and restored in the most beautiful possible way, seen below. 

The highly ornamented interior that had been painted in the style of trompe l'oeil (fool the eye), has been restored and conserved, creating an optical illusion while simulating on a flat surface three dimensional objects and architectural elements. Meanwhile, statues have been repainted and polychromed and cracks in the walls have been assessed and fixed to prevent further damage. 

Sometime in the 1960s the last painting of the interior was likely carried out, in dark institutional colors. Careful removal of overpaint from previous restorations can be seen below, a painstaking process that wields many surprises. 

The beautiful stained-glass windows date from the early 1900s. The high altar also dates from the same period, installed in 1909. The inner design boasts two stories of windows, with a barrel vault over the main body of the church.  

Detailed photos of the massive project can be seen here. Hats off to the artisans and engineers of EverGreene Architectural Arts - experts at historic preservation - who restored the works on site as well as in their Washington, D.C. studio. 

God bless and reward all those involved in this vital project to help preserve and enhance the beauty of this historic liturgical space by making it as beautiful as possible. With the biggest part of the restoration now complete, the focus is on the pews and floors. For information on giving, please click here. People can also donate through WeShare.


If you enjoy John Sonnen's content on LAJ,  why not 
make a donation to him? You can choose the amount and it goes directly to him.

Why not also consider subscribing monthly/yearly to Liturgical Arts Journal? Choose the amount for yourself. Your support of LAJ and its writers makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.