When Bishop McDevitt High School moved in January 2013 from Market Street to Crusader Way, it took with it the name of the bishop who founded the first Catholic secondary school in Harrisburg in 1918 and who built the beautiful twin towers school at 2200 Market in 1930.
Bishop Philip R. McDevitt, whose portrait hangs in the main hall of the new high school, was one of the most dedicated and accomplished advocates for Catholic education in the early 20th Century. Born in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, he attended St. Michael’s parish, a parish that suffered the burning down of its church in 1844 during an anti-Catholic rampage in the city. The often-violent anti-Catholic movement that later became institutionalized in the Know Nothing Party was waning at the time of McDevitt’s birth in 1858, but he would have certainly known of its history from his Irish immigrant mother who witnessed the mobs setting fire to churches and homes of Catholics. Perhaps her stories of that time contributed to his life mission of providing the best possible Catholic education to every Catholic child.
Ordained a priest at 25, he spent a good part of his first assignment at Nativity Parish in Philadelphia working with the parish school children on student publications and on organizing of spelling bees. He was later named the Philadelphia Diocese’s first Superintendent of Schools. In that capacity, he worked hard to open the first Catholic high school for girls in the city in 1912. Not content to be an administrator only, McDevitt spoke weekly to students on ethical and moral living. At the same time, he pursued his interest in American Catholic history, researching and writing historical papers and serving three terms as president of the American Catholic Historical Society.
McDevitt was named the fourth Bishop of Harrisburg in 1916, and just two years later opened Harrisburg Catholic High School on North Street. Also, during his 20 years as Bishop of Harrisburg, he oversaw the opening of 10 new parishes, 12 new parish schools, and eight high school centers in the wide-reaching diocese.
When Harrisburg Catholic High outgrew its downtown location near the Cathedral, the Bishop sought a spectacular setting and an impressive design for a new high school building. He turned down a proposal for a more pedestrian design and a less dramatic location in the city’s uptown area in favor of the twin towers and his chosen site on a hill near Reservoir Park.
He suffered a heart attack the year the school was completed and would die five years later at age 78 after celebrating 50 years in the priesthood. The man who wanted the best for Harrisburg Catholic asked for his own funeral Mass to be simple with no sermon. The number of mourners was so great that people had to stand in the aisles and in the street outside the Cathedral. Bishop McDevitt was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in the priests’ circle.
Harrisburg Catholic High was renamed for the bishop who built it in 1957, 22 years after his death. Bishop McDevitt’s biographer, Ella Marie Flick, on whose work this summary is based, said that Bishop McDevitt’s greatest legacy would be his outstanding work in Catholic education. The school that still bears his name stands as a continuing testament to that legacy.