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History of Market Square Presbyterian Church

by John Taylor


In the late 1700s, several members of Paxton Presbyterian Church asked to form a new congregation in the nearby river town being laid out by John Harris Jr.  Paxton’s pastor, The Rev. John Elder, blocked their efforts, but agreed to allow creation of a satellite worshipping community firmly under the control of the mother church.  Elder died in 1792.  Two years later, the presbytery approved formation of what was then officially designated as the English Presbyterian Congregation of Harrisburg.  Over the years, we would be called by several different names, including the Harrisburg Presbyterian Church, the First Presbyterian Church of Harrisburg, and with construction of the present building in 1860, Market Square Presbyterian Church.


Until 1860, we were the only Presbyterian church in town.  In the early years, we had no building of our own, instead meeting at various locations including at one time the local jail.  We constructed our first building in 1806 at the corner of Second Street and Cherry Alley.  It was there where the women of our congregation established Harrisburg’s first Sunday school – not just for Bible studies but also for reading, writing and arithmetic as there were no public schools back then.


That first building was demolished and replaced in 1842 by a second, larger building on the same site.  The second building burned to the ground in 1858 which set in motion the creation of three churches from one.  Several of our Black members decided they wanted a church of their own, so they left to form what is now Capital Presbyterian Church.  A theological dispute between what was then known as Old School and New School Presbyterians resulted in the formation of Pine Street Presbyterian Church.  But most of the congregation stayed in tack and purchased this site on Market Square.


We hired a Philadelphia architect named Joseph Hoxie, who specialized in designing churches and railroad depots.  He had designed the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in downtown Philly and the old Harrisburg train station, since replaced.  Hoxie chose as his main style Romanesque Revival with exterior red brick and brownstone trim.  He topped it with a Gothic steeple rising to 193 feet.  For the interior, Hoxie fashioned an all-white sanctuary marked by four Corinthian columns supporting arches over the pulpit area.  Whether intended or not, it made the front of the sanctuary in the new church look strikingly similar to the outside front of the church that burned.


The new sanctuary also featured 10 stained-glass windows, five on either side.  In later years, three on the north side were replaced by windows bearing biblical images.  They were gifts to the church from families wishing to memorialize lost loved ones. 


The dedicatory service for the new Market Square Church occurred on Sunday, March 18, 1860.  Coincidentally, on the day after the dedication, March 19, 1860, Harrisburg officially became a city.  Previously, it had been designated a borough.


Members of the new Pine Street church decided to affiliate with the Old School Presbyterians, a sect that had broken away from the main body some 20 years earlier.  There were some theological differences between the Old School and New School Presbyterians.  In 1868, the New School Presbyterians held their General Assembly in our sanctuary.  In the same week, the Old Schoolers met in Albany, NY.  It was at these assemblies that overtures began which resulted in the eventual reunification of the two branches.  This is not to be confused with the division of our denomination North and South at the time of the Civil War – a split that continued until 1958.


In 1872, our first organ was installed in the choir loft, a gift of James Wallace Weir, an elder and superintendent of the Sunday school for nearly half a century.  Ten years later, the size of the church building was doubled with construction of an addition at the rear to house Sunday school classrooms and church offices. 


In 1887, our board of deacons was organized to serve the needs of the poor and sick both within the congregation and in the wider community.


In 1917, Market Square hosted the city’s first Girl Scout troop.  A Boy Scout troop had been formed in the church six years earlier.  


In 1931, Market Square began broadcasting its Sunday morning worship service on the radio – a practice that continues today. 


In 1937, there was a major renovation of the sanctuary.  In addition, the lecture hall behind the sanctuary was raised and converted into a chapel and a session meeting room, now the parlor.  The area underneath was made into Fellowship Hall.


In 1944, the original organ, now 72 years old, wheezed its last breath and died.  Two years later, the Aeolian-Skinner Co. installed a new organ.  In addition, there was more excavation beneath the sanctuary to accommodate a choir room and a scout room flanking the hallway.  Today those facilities house a Sunday school and a nursery.


In 1962, Market Square established its own radio station, WMSP-FM, operated largely by volunteers and broadcasting both religious programming and classical music.  In fact, it was the area’s only classical music station until the establishment of WITF-FM nine years later.


In 1967, Market Square purchased the Foerster Building on the south side of the church to house the studios of WMSP on the ground floor.  We also became a landlord, as there were apartments on the floors above.


In 1974, Market Square welcomed Korean immigrants into our midst by offering Sunday morning worship services in their native language.  That action eventually spawned the creation of a separate Korean Presbyterian church on the West Shore, although many of the Koreans chose to remain members of Market Square.


In 1977, in cooperation with Carlisle Presbytery, Market Square helped to establish the Indo-Chinese Service Center to assist refugees from Vietnam and other war-torn countries of Southeast Asia.  The program, operating out of the church building, eventually expanded into the International Service Center which today provides assistance to refugees and immigrants from around the world.


Throughout its existence, Market Square, in addition to its support of foreign missions, has worked to serve the needs of immigrants in the Harrisburg area.  At various times, we have provided English language classes to Chinese, Greek and Bulgarian immigrants and conducted Sunday school classes in both Chinese and Italian.  Our commitment to welcome the stranger continues today with efforts to resettle displaced families from Afghanistan.   


In 1988, WMSP was sold, ending 26 years of Market Square’s experience as a broadcaster.


In 1989, we sold the Foerster Building and an adjacent lot to the city to make way for construction of a seven-level parking garage.


In 1990, an addition was built onto the south side of the church, providing a direct link to the garage and adding rest rooms, a cloak room and an elevator.  Church offices were moved, and the Moller Company renovated and expanded the organ.


1994 marked the adoption of a new mission statement welcoming all into our “diverse and inclusive family of faith.”  It has been amended twice to underscore our commitment both to inclusiveness within our congregation and to working toward a sustainable environment. 


In 2001, the deacons initiated a Sunday breakfast program for the homeless, a ministry that continues today.  In that same year, we sponsored four of the Lost Boys of Sudan, young refugees from that war-torn nation.  Church volunteers devoted the next several years to help the young men assimilate into American society.


In 2003, Market Square joined with other downtown churches to provide overnight winter shelters for the homeless.  The move eventually led to the construction of the Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven, which provides a temporary, year-round residence for homeless men struggling to become self-sufficient.  


In 2006, we saw the completion of major building renovations, including a glass-topped atrium at the garage entrance, a glass-paneled nursery, a room for young people, and a new library.


In 2008, we installed a columbarium in the courtyard adjacent to the church for the cremated remains of the deceased.


2012 – An Archives Committee was created to oversee the proper storage and preservation of church records, the most important of which have been digitized with copies stored with the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.  Some of those records, including baptisms and marriages, are now accessible on-line.  The committee also arranged for a historical marker to be placed on the front of the church building.


2013 – In keeping with our mission statement, we created an LGBT and Allies Committee.


2014 - Creation of a Room for the Inner Way, a specially dedicated space within the church for silent worship, contemplation and prayer.  Also, in that same year, we opened our doors during the week so that the United Way could provide a free tax-preparation service.


2017 – Because of our efforts on behalf of a cleaner environment, we were officially designated by our denomination as an Earth Care congregation.


2020 – The Antiracism Task Force was created to work toward the dismantling of systematic racism in all areas of congregational life.


2020 – The Covid pandemic forced suspension of in-person attendance of worship services for the better part of two years.  Meanwhile, our sanctuary underwent a major renovation which included a complete reconstruction of the organ, new flooring and carpeting, and replacement of the original 160-year-old pews.


Despite the interruption of in-person worship, our pastors and the remnants of a choir continued to conduct services in the sanctuary that were aired over the radio and via our website.  In addition, we continued to provide take-out breakfast to the homeless.


2022 – We began the video live streaming of our Sunday worship services.

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