ST. JOHN CHURCH / THE CATHEDRAL OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT
Although the city of Altoona was founded in 1849, it was not until 1851 that a church was built and a permanent Catholic parish was established, primarily to provide for the spiritual needs of the laborers helping to build the Pennsylvania Railroad. The first Mass in this area was offered by Reverend John Walsh, pastor of Saint Mary Church in Hollidaysburg, possibly in 1850, but the first church, Saint John the Evangelist, was not dedicated until 1851.
The first resident pastor was assigned in July 1853, by Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh, Altoona then being part of that diocese. The Reverend John Tuigg was Secretary to Bishop O’Connor, and a future Bishop of Pittsburgh himself. Reverend Tuigg served as pastor from 1853 to 1876 and was responsible for establishing the parish school and bringing the Sisters of Charity to staff it. He was named Bishop of Pittsburgh in 1876.
His successor was Reverend John Walsh, who had celebrated the first Mass in the parish. He served only four years, dying at the young age of 61 in 1880, spending his last two years as an invalid. He is buried in Saint Mary Cemetery, Hollidaysburg. The third pastor was Reverend Thomas Ryan, appointed in 1880. He will be remembered for erecting the current school building. Another short-term pastor, he died in 1883, and is buried in Saint Patrick Cemetery, Gallitzin, a parish he founded.
Early in 1883, Bishop Tuigg, the first pastor, suffered a stroke and requested to be moved from the Bishop’s House in Pittsburgh to his beloved Saint John in Altoona. No pastor was appointed during the time of Bishop Tuigg’s disability so the affairs of the parish were administered primarily by Reverend Nicholas O’Reilly and Reverend Thomas Smith, the future first pastors of Saint Mark and Sacred heart Parishes, Altoona, respectively. Bishop Tuigg died in 1889 and is buried in Saint John cemetery here in Altoona.
The Reverend Edward Bush was appointed the fourth pastor in 1890, the first pastor who was not a native of Ireland. Ordained in 1863, Father Bush served on the faculty of Saint Michael Seminary in Pittsburgh and, later, as president of Saint Francis College in Loretto. After serving here for four years, Father Bush was appointed Vicar General of the diocese and pastor of Saint Peter Church, Northside Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Allegheny. He died there in 1918, at the age of 79.
Reverend Morgan Sheedy, the fifth pastor, was appointed in 1894, and served for 45 years. A scholar, he gained national stature as a lecturer, frequent contributor to magazines and author of several books. Father Sheedy was also the first rector of the Cathedral, as the Diocese of Altoona was established in 1901, and served in that capacity the longest. he is buried in the courtyard between the Rectory and the Cathedral.
To be named the rector of the Cathedral is an honor – a mark of the bishop’s confidence. The Cathedral parish is really the Bishop’s parish. The rector manages its life on a daily basis. The rector along with the Cathedral staff become a part of all diocesan events held in the Cathedral such as ordinations and confirmations.
Saint John Church continued to serve as the Cathedral until 1923 when it was razed to make way for the present structure. Bishop John McCort appointed Reverend James Melvin to assist in the building program for the new Cathedral. He had been ordained in 1921 and was serving here as an assistant. As administrator, he supervised the construction of a temporary hall on 12th Avenue to serve as a place of worship, the building of the present convent (1925), the razing of the old rectory, church, school and convent that occupied the present site of the Cathedral, and the building of the current rectory. Mr. Herbert Clark and Father Melvin oversaw the entire construction. This exacted a heavy toll on Father Melvin. He died in 1938, one month shy of his 41st birthday.
In 1938, Reverend Ildephonse Denny, a native son of the diocese, was named administrator. After Father Sheedy’s death in 1939, Father Denny was named rector and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1972. Monsignor Denny will be remembered for liquidating the parish debt, renovating the school building, completing the interior of the Cathedral, and personally instructing the children for their First Communion. He died in 1976, at the age of 84.
Reverend Monsignor Thomas Madden was appointed as rector in 1972, and served until 1987. He supervised changes in the completed Cathedral, especially the new doors and the newer stained glass windows. Monsignor Madden had served as an assistant under Father Sheedy, during the building of the Cathedral. As Chancellor and Vicar General, he also served as Administrator of the Diocese three times as we awaited a new bishop.
Reverend Monsignor Paul Panza became the fourth rector of the Cathedral in 1987 and served until his retirement from active ministry in 1995. He began the liturgical renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council, which involved many changes, including the use of lay liturgical ministers and renovations to the worship space itself. Monsignor Panza served as Chancellor of the Diocese and, later, as one of the Vicar Generals.
Reverend Monsignor Robert Mazur, the ninth pastor, has furthered the liturgical renewal of the parish by emphasizing the full, active, conscious participation of the assembly. The rites of Christian Initiation for both adults and children are celebrated at Sunday liturgies. The entire parish family is invited to come forward and share time, talent and treasure in a spirit of stewardship, resulting in an increase in the number of people involved in the various ministries and activities. While liturgical celebrations at the Cathedral serve as a model for the Diocese, there is still room for growth – for more liturgical ministers, for better, fuller congregational participation, and a deeper sense of Christian community and hospitality.
HISTORY OF THE CATHEDRAL’S CONSTRUCTION
September 17, 1924 — Ground is broken.
May 30, 1926 — The Cornerstone laid (25th Anniversary of erection of diocese).
1929 — Construction comes to a halt due to the Stock Market Crash.
September 7, 1931 — The unfinished Cathedral is opened for public worship.
Over next 28 years, Bishop Guilfoyle (the Third Bishop) accumulates the funds for the Cathedral’s completion. Bishop Guilfoyle dies before work can begin.
Bishop Carroll (Fourth Bishop) begins the work but dies within a year. Work had progressed so fast, however, that his funeral was celebrated in March, 1960 in the nearly completed Cathedral.
November 13, 1960 — The Cathedral is formally opened by Bishop McCormick.
OUR PASTORS, RECTORS, AND ADMINISTRATORS
Rev. John Tuigg 1853 – 1876
Rev. John Walsh 1876 – 1880
Rev. Thomas Ryan 1880 – 1883
Most Rev. John Tuigg 1883 – 1889
Administrators: Nicholas O’Reilly and Thomas Smith
Rev. Edward Bush 1890 – 1894
Rev. Morgan Sheedy 1894 – 1939
Named First Rector: 1901
Rev. Msgr. Ildephonse Denny 1939 – 1972
Rev. Msgr. Thomas Madden, PA 1972 – 1987
Rev. Msgr. Paul Panza, PA 1987 – 1995
Rev. Msgr. Robert Mazur 1995 –
Rev. Msgr. Stanley Carson 2019 – present