St. Edward’s Catholic Church is the oldest religious organization at Shamokin, and built the first church in the town. During the construction of the Danville and Pottsville railroad a large number of Catholics were employed on that work, and as early as 1838 Catholic services were held in Shamokin by the pastors of Pottsville and Minersville. About one acre of land for a church and cemetery was secured in the west end of the village (the present site of the knob factory), and in the spring of 1839 sufficient money had been raised to erect a small unplastered frame church twenty by thirty-two feet in dimensions on the southwest corner of the lot.
Patrick Reilly, master mechanic in the railroad shops, and Matthew Brannigan were the leading spirits in the enterprise, and Stephen Bittenbender put up the building. It was dedicated as St. Edward’s, October 11, 1840, by Bishop Kenrick of Philadelphia. The little congregation was visited occasionally by the pastors of the Pottsville, Minersville, Danville, and Milton churches and sometimes a missionary would put in his appearance, and thus the faith was kept alive in the hearts of the early Catholics of Shamokin. From October 1854, until October, 1857, Rev. Michael Sheridan, pastor of St. Joseph’s church at Danville, had charge of the congregation. He was succeeded by Rev. Edward Murray, who served the Shamokin congregation nearly nine years.
In September, 1866, Rev. J. J. Koch, then pastor of St. Joseph’s of Milton, was appointed the first resident pastor of St. Edward’s, with Trevorton and Locust Gap as missions. He immediately began the work of building up and infusing new life into his congregation. The present church site was purchased at a cost of thirty-four hundred dollars ; the old building was torn down in November, 1866, and rebuilt, considerably enlarged, on the new site. In the spring of 1867 it was again enlarged to accommodate the growing congregation. In the spring of 1869 a lot adjoining the church was bought for nine hundred dollars and the present substantial parochial residence erected thereon at a cost of eight thousand five hundred dollars.
The congregation increased so rapidly that a new church became an imperative necessity, and in the summer of 1872 ground was broken for the foundation. On the 14th of September following Father Koch laid the first stone in the walls of the present imposing structure, of which the cornerstone was laid, May 23, 1873, by Bishop O’Hara of Scranton, in the presence of a large assemblage which gathered to witness the impressive ceremonies.
The pastor let the contract for the entire stonework, but after working six weeks the contractor abandoned the work. Not to be thwarted in his cherished plans, Father Koch at once took charge of the construction of the building, and, notwithstanding his numerous pastoral duties, he hired the masons and daily superintended the work until the massive stone walls were ready for the roof. By December, 1873, the building was roofed, and on Christmas morning Father Koch celebrated Mass in the basement.
Though much was accomplished, much still remained to be done, and in the following spring work was resumed. The walls were finished, the massive tower built, a pavement laid around the church, and the basement, which is ten feet high in the clear, plastered and fitted up for divine worship. The entire structure is built of white cut sandstone, quarried from the mountain about one mile from Shamokin. It is sixty-four by one hundred twenty-five feet in size, and the tower is two hundred seven feet high. The interior is fifty-six by one hundred nineteen feet in dimensions, and the ceiling is forty- two feet high. The building is finished in the Corinthian and Romanesque style, and is the largest and costliest church edifice in Northumberland county.
The lack of funds prevented Father Koch from completing the interior, and from Christmas, 1873, until June, 1880, the congregation worshiped in the basement. In November, 1876, a chime of four bells was hung in the tower, weighing, with mountings, eight thousand five hundred pounds. In 1879, the contract for finishing the interior (except frescoing) was given to Joseph Nesbit, of Lewisburg, and on the 1st of January, 1880, it was ready for the painter’s brush.
The frescoing required four months, and was done by a well known Philadelphia artist. Over the main altar are life-size paintings of the Crucifixion, St. Patrick, and St. Edward, the patron of the church. In the center of the ceiling is a fresco twenty-two feet in diameter representing the resurrection of Christ, surrounded by figures of the four Evangelists, and around the walls are paintings of the twelve Apostles. Handsome altars, beautiful stained glass windows, and a new pipe-organ were also put in at this time.
The church was dedicated with imposing ceremonies, June 6th, 1880, by Bishop Shanahan, who delivered the dedicatory address, his theme being “The Infallibility of the Church.” A large number of priests were present, and special trains brought to Shamokin hundreds of people who were anxious to witness the dedication.
Many costly improvements have since been made, which add to the artistic appearance and beauty of the interior. Two fine pieces of statuary, representing, respectively, “Christ meeting His Mother on His way to Calvary” and “The Descent of the Cross,” one on each side of the sanctuary, are especially noticeable. These were imported from France by Father Koch. The whole building is lighted with electricity and heated with steam. Its seating capacity is over one thousand, while as many as fourteen hundred people have been gathered within its walls. The total cost of the entire building and furniture as it stands today was about fifty thousand dollars.
The congregation numbers over three thousand souls, and takes pride in its very large and prosperous Sunday school, which meets in the basement of the church. This was organized soon after Father Koch assumed the pastorate, and has kept pace with the growth of the congregation. To Father Koch’s indefatigable labors and wise management is principally due the rapid growth of the Catholic church in Shamokin. From the day he came to the town until the present he has toiled faithfully in this portion of God’s vineyard. He is loved by the Catholics of the borough, and respected by all for his high Christian character and the grand work that he has accomplished for his people.