The second phase of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish began on November 17, 1799 with the arrival of Father Peter Helbron, O.F.M. Cap., who had been appointed by Bishop John Carroll of the Diocese of Baltimore as pastor of the Westmoreland County congregation. Father Helbron thus became the second resident pastor of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish.
Father Peter Helbron came to Philadelphia, along with his priest-brother, Father John Baptist (Charles) Helbron, O.F.M. Cap., landing on October 14, 1787, after a trans-Atlantic voyage. The two had come to America in response to a letter in a German newspaper in order to work among the German immigrants in the missions of Pennsylvania.
Father John Carroll, who was then “Superior of the Mission” in the United States, welcomed the two German Capuchins and appointed them to the congregation in Goshenhoppen, Berks County, where they were welcomed by the many German Catholic settlers. Indeed Father Peter Helbron was appointed pastor at Goshenhoppen on November 12, 1787, and remained there until he became pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, Philadelphia, after his brother, Father John Baptist Helbron, left for Europe in the autumn of 1791. The latter had been pastor of Holy Trinity Parish from 1789 until he embarked for Europe to collect money in an attempt to defray the enormous debt on the parish. But Father John Baptist Helbron was destined never to return to America, since he was guillotined in Bayonne, France on November 25, 1793, at the age of forty-seven, a victim of the French Revolution.
After five years at Holy Trinity and three years at Saint Joseph Parish Father Helbron accepted Bishop Carroll’s appointment to the Sportsman’s Hall Parish. With the arrival of Father Helbron to his new mission on November 17, 1799 there opened a new chapter in the history of the Church in western Pennsylvania. The estimate in 1799 was that there were seventy-five communicants for a congregation. With his characteristic energy, he soon began to improve the Sportsman’s Hall Parish plant. This was evident when the congregation built for him, in 1800, a house, 26′ by 28′, which offered better accommodations for both the priest and people. After a short time an addition was built to the house to serve as a chapel – thus it became the first church of the settlement. Father Helbron “blessed it in the name of Jesus, and entitled it the Chapel of the Holy Cross.”
But this space, although it served as a place of worship for ten years, soon proved to be too small. Father Helbron offered his unfinished house as a chapel, but the parishioners were now determined to build a new church on the spot which Father Brouwers had selected for that purpose. And, in order to raise the necessary funds, the parishioners were called upon to pledge voluntary contributions – 73 persons offered to contribute $206.50, according to a list preserved in the Saint Vincent Archives. Lumber was plentiful and there was a lot of voluntary labor and so the work on the 26 ‘ by 40 ‘ structures made steady progress. Henry Kuhn, the ever-active parishioner, did, however, have to journey across the Alleghenies on horseback to Carlisle to buy the nails needed. And so it was, that, in 1810, the people of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish had a church of their own – rough hewn as it was – in which to worship.
While Father Helbron was caring for the spiritual and temporal needs of the parishioners of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish, he did not neglect those Catholics who lived in other parts of Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains. He visited the Catholics of at least seven counties before he received any assistance in the form of a fellow missionary priest. These seven counties formed a semicircle with the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains, namely: Westmoreland, Fayette, Washington, Greene, Allegheny, Butler and Armstrong Counties.
One of the things that Father Helbron did from the time of his arrival at the Sportsman’s Hall Parish in the autumn of 1799 was to keep a record of baptisms, marriages and funerals – something that had not been done previously. These records, reputed to be “the oldest in this part of the United States,” are preserved in the Saint Vincent Archives and have been a valuable source of information not only concerning the parishioners of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish, but also concerning all of the missionary ministrations of Father Helbron in western Pennsylvania. Because of the value of this source, it was originally published between 1915 and 1917 and then reprinted in 1985 under the title, Catholic Baptisms in Western Pennsylvania, 1799-1828: Father Peter Helbron’s Greensburg Register. The work of copying from the original book was done by Father John Miller, O.S.B. – no small feat because of the German and Latin script and because of the often poor handwriting. The English translation was made by Dr. Lawrence F. Flick, M.D. From these records we learn that, during Father Helbron’s pastorate at Sportsman’s Hall Parish, from 1799 to 1815, there were 825 baptisms, 47 marriages and 9 funerals.
Father Helbron died on April 24, 1816 in Carlisle, on the way home to his beloved Sportsman’s Hall Parish following surgery in Philadelphia. He is buried in a little plot of ground that adjoined the Saint Patrick’s Church in Carlisle.