About Our Community
CONEWAGO is an indian word derived from Caughnawago,meaning 'the place at the rapids'. It was applied to the settlement at the rapids of the St. Lawrence River, near Montreal, and later to the creek that flows into the Susquehanna River at the rapids above Columbia. A branch of this stream flows near our church, and the name Conewago has been associated with this locality.
INDIANS of many tribes used this region as a hunting ground. Tradition says that Mass was offered in this locality in the wigwams of Catholic Indians by Jesuit missionaries from Maryland before the coming of the white man.
The First Settlers moved into this territory because of its strategic position. It was near the intersection of two important trails; one originating in Baltimore and leading to Carlisle and the north; the other starting in Philadelphia and running westward and wouthward to and beyond the Potomac River. It was also within the disputed territory claimed by both Maryland and Pennsylvania and afforded a natural sanctuary for the English and Irish Catholics who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs in the former colony. Along the Little Conewago they built their cabins and cleared land, forming the first distinctly Catholic settlement in Pennsylvania. Even today this district remains almost solidly Catholic.
Titles To The Land were first given by Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, about 1730, although Maryland "squatters" had settled here before that time. The largest grant was that of 10,501 acres bestowed upon John Digges, and known as DIGGES' CHOICE. It spread athwart the cross-roads with its northwest corner close to the church, which received its patent from the Penns. Additional farm land for the church was bought later from the Diggs.
Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J. is the first priest, whose name we know, who attended the early Catholic settlers here. He arrived in Maryland in 1719 and was assigned to the large mission territory which included northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. Sometime before 1733 he took up permanent residence in Philadelphia where he built St. Joseph's Church in Willing's Alley.
Mass Houses were used before any church structure was erected. Several have been cited, but the strongest tradition is the first home of Robert Owings built near the spring that crosses the present day McSherrystown-Conewago Road. The later Robert Owings home, used as a Mass house in the 1780s was located just north of and within eyesight of the church. The stones from this building were used in building the parish hall.
Conewago Chapel was a combination log dwelling and chapel built in 1741 under the direction of Father William Wappeler, S.J., a priest sent to look after the German Catholic immigrants, who began to settle here in the 1730s. The chapel was dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption, but immediately it was called "Conewago Chapel." Even after that chapel was demolished and the present church erected, the name "Conewago Chapel" still remains. The chapel was enlarged in 1768 , and it became the headquarters of the Jesuit missionaries of the St. Francis Regis mission circuit, which embraced most of the vast territory in Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna and Western Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The Jesuits identified it as the "motherhouse of all the Jesuits houses in Pennsylvania, save Philadelphia." It has also been called the "Gateway of the Faith."
Rev. James Pellentz, S.J. was one of the unfaltering band of missionaries. Arriving here in 1758, he became pastor ten years later and died here in 1800. A man of vision and ability, he merited the close friendship of the Rt. Rev. John Carroll, America's first Prefect Apostlic and Bishop, becoming America's first Vicar General in 1791. By 1784 the Conewago congregation had grown to over a thousand members, and a new church was a necessity. With the active help of the parishioners, the largest church within the new nation was started in 1785 and completed in 1787. The spacious rectory was built at the same time.