Jesuit missionaries may have celebrated the first Catholic baptism in what is now Huntingdon County at the native village of native village of Achsinnink (known as Onojutta to the Iroquois) in the first half of the eighteenth century, pre-dating the platting of the town of Huntingdon by William Smith in 1766. This fact would have troubled the young and fervent William Smith D.D., a prominent speculator, educator, Anglican priest and the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, active on the political scene as an agent of Thomas Penn and the proprietors. Smith was a product of his times, known in his early years for his strident dislike of Quakers and “papists,” often-published articles and broadsides against both to sustain colonial will in the fight against Catholic France. So strident were his feelings – until the upheavals of the Revolution at least – that Smith required his students to deny, under oath, “the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation” as condition for admittance to the nascent University of Pennsylvania. Smith also argued that Catholics should be prohibited from owning land in the province, a marked departure from the elder William Penn’s ethic of tolerance.
On March 25, 1766, William Smith acquired the 400-acre tract that would become the site of present-day Huntingdon from the Indian trader, soldier and land speculator George Croghan. The property complemented Smith’s many holdings throughout the Juniata Valley dating from as early as December 14, 1762. The Irish Croghan had purchased the land on the site of the Standing Stone in 1760 from his contemporary, the Indian trader Hugh Crawford. His rivals and enemies often accused the Dublin-born Croghan of being Catholic, a function of his nativity, rough demeanor and frequent association with French traders throughout the frontier.
In spite of Protestant political and cultural hegemony in early British America, Jesuits had established a small mission in the village of Conewago, in what is now, Adams County, as early as 1720. By 1768, the Conewago chapel was the hub of a Jesuit circuit that extended from the Shenandoah Valley to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. Following the Revolutionary War – and Loyalist Smith’s well-timed re-embrace of William Penn’s ethic of religious freedom – Jesuit James Pellentz rode to Standing Stone from Conewago to minister to the Catholic faithful and scout a site for the permanent establishment of a parish. In 1784, Fr. Pellentz purchased property in what is now Huntingdon Borough for the development of a Catholic church.
Although accounts differ, historians suggest that the Catholic faithful built the first church in Huntingdon soon after the establishment of the county on September 20, 1787. The first Catholic edifice in Huntingdon was a modest log chapel located at the northwest corner of what is now Third Street and Penn Street. This site was purchased from Provost Smith, then in exile, on October 10, 1788 in the name of then Superior of the Missions, John Carroll, two years prior to his instillation as Bishop of the first Catholic diocese in the young United States. This agreement was the standard contract that Smith offered his clients, renting two lots (#27 and #28) in the town plat for the annual payment of “one Spanish milled piece of eight of fine silver” and the condition that the Church build a “substantial dwelling house “. . . with a good brick or stone chimney.”
In spite of the construction of the Church building, the Huntingdon faithful would have to wait years for a resident priest, relying on the itinerant priests, including the Irish Franciscan Fr. Peter Helborn, a pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. Other early priests included a German Rev. Hilborn, the Englishman Fr. Hall, and the French Fr. Brosius, a close friend of former Russian prince Demetrius Gallitzin, the apostle to the Alleghenies.
The first burial of Catholics in Huntingdon took place in small family lots or in the churchyard of the original log chapel. Needing a consecrated cemetery, on August 1, 1792 “The Right Rev’d John Carroll, Bishop of Baltimore” purchased a pair of lots (#174 and #175) at the southwest corner of Second Street and Church Street from the theologically reconstructed William Smith. Leaving aside his pre-Revolution sentiments, Smith states in the deed that his sale of land to the church was in:
Earnest desire to promote the Gospel of our common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by whomsoever professed and taught for the advancement of vital religion and true practical Christianity, as well as in consideration of the sum of five shillings to me in hand . . . for the purpose of erecting a church chapel or place of worship for the same, and for a burying ground for the professors of the Catholic Religion.
In August 1794, representatives of Rev. Carroll purchased several more lots in Huntingdon, agreeing to the standard stipulations. Fr. Gallitzin and other priests traveling from the Catholic toehold of Conewago administered the first regular sacraments to Huntingdon faithful in 1795. That year, the elderly William Smith donated land to “each religious denomination represented in the population,” including the Presbyterian, German Calvinist, German Lutheran and Methodist Churches.