Saturday, April 7, 2007

Sacred Heart Church Revisited

Ask and ye shall receive...

I drive by Sacred Heart Church on Chestnut Street in Springfield on my way to work every day. Interstate 291 in that area gets tricky, the crossover to the Armory Street exit - which is the one I want - a daily dare of death-defying driving. Yet, I never pass the towering and magnificent, aptly-crowned structure without taking a look. 'Tis a satisfying gaze, this rock of hope, steadfast and true, beckoning like a stepping-stone to greatness. Proof that man can rise above.

Last month, I happened to be in the area of the church for appointments (how come many of the new people you meet as you get older seem to be doctors?), and noticed the cross from the south peak had been removed temporarily as part of renovations to the church roof. It was odd, but neat, to see the heavy stone cross at ground-level. I made it a point to stop on my way home to take some photos. I wondered how long it had been since the cross had been so accessible, the last time folks could walk up and look at it close-up, the simple carving no less humbling to a believing soul whether at fingertip's reach or eye's far-focus.

I featured some of those photos here on EWM in a post of March 12, 'Sacred Heart Church Gets a New Roof,' captioned with my corny, but captivating, commentary. Due to time constraints, I wasn't able to do much research on the history of Sacred Heart Parish or Church, and it wasn't until my follow-up post of March 28, 'Sacred Heart Church Gets a New Roof Redux,' and a query from a regular reader and sometime contributor, that I was prompted to look further into this majestic treasure of Springfield, a source of pride to the community, parishioner and non-parishioner alike.

I was a bit surprised to find that the parish doesn't have a website. What a sign of the times that is: It's one thing to imagine the world accessible at the click of a mouse, it's entirely another to begin to expect it. Disappointment in a fruitless Google search is a symptom of change.

I resorted to snail-mail, and was extremely pleased to receive a quick response which included some excellent information, especially a concise historical summary of the parish and church, titled, 'Sacred Heart Church: A Magnet to the Eye, A Signal to the Spirit.' I wish whoever had sent the materials had included their name, because they certainly have been very helpful. I guess I will just thank the entire parish, after all, they are the ones who support the work of the church, the anchor of the North End for well over 100 years.

I was a little amused with myself when I noticed that on the first page of the history was a quote from the book 'Springfield Present and Prospective' (Pond & Campbell, 1905), the book I am currently transcribing here at EWM as part of the regular Sunday history transcription series. Had I consulted the book, I would have found two pages dedicated to a brief description of Sacred Heart Parish and its history up to the farewell turn of the 19th century. Another reminder that I'm not the sharpest tack in the bulletin board. Alas, those reminders seem to come more frequently with the passing of the days.

Most of the following information is gleaned from the two aforementioned sources.

The Gothic Revival-style church is actually the second home of Sacred Heart Parish, the third if you consider that, in 1872, Sacred Heart Parish was spun off from St. Michael's Parish, the city's oldest, established in 1861, which, up until that time, had been the sole parish serving an ever-growing population of Roman Catholics in Springfield. The land for the city's second parish, at the corner of Linden (now Stafford) and Chestnut Streets, was purchased in 1869 by Boston Bishop John Williams. As pointed out in the history, 'A Magnet to the Eye, A Signal to the Spirit,' this makes Sacred Heart Parish older than the Diocese of Springfield itself, which was established in July, 1870, by Pope Pius IX. Rev. Patrick T. O'Reilly enjoyed the distinction of being named first Bishop of Springfield, and it is remembered that he served with great devotion and kindness for his congregation from the time of his consecration in St. Michael's Cathedral on September 25, 1870, until his passing on May 28, 1892. On the day of Bishop O'Reilly's funeral, June 1, 1892, Springfield's mayor, Lawson Sibley, requested that city businesses remain closed as a sign of respect for the beloved clergyman.

The design and purpose of the original structure for the new parish was decided at an 1872 meeting between Bishop O'Reilly and North End Catholics, the majority of them Irish immigrants, who were the foundation of Sacred Heart Parish. Desiring a Catholic school, as well as a place to worship, the parishioners opted to build a tri-level, multi-use structure with their limited funds, rather than pouring all of their resources into a singularly-functioning church, the two choices having been presented to them by Bishop O'Reilly. James Murphy, of Providence, Rhode Island, was chosen as the architect of the parish building. The final design agreed upon consisted of room for 1,200 worshippers on the building's ground-level, with the Catholic school, the first in the city, occupying the second floor. The third-floor was set aside for social functions and was known as 'convent hall,' and the basement was utilized as a home for various church organizations.

The cornerstone for the first Sacred Heart Parish building was laid, fittingly so, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1873. Although the church was still years away from completion, Father James J. McDermott, chosen to shepherd the new parish, celebrated the first Mass at Sacred Heart on Easter Sunday, 1874.

In 1877, the school opened, admittance to which was restricted to girls because of a lack of classroom space. A girls' high school was carved out of part of the third floor in 1881. The school went co-ed in 1908. Sacred Heart High School and Holy Name High School in Chicopee were combined in 1969 and renamed Notre Dame High School. The high school closed seven years later, in 1976.

The $40,000 price of construction of the parish building was raised through donations, parish fundraisers and a loan, which was satisfied in 1888. Sixteen years after the original unmistakably utilitarian Parish building was conceived, Father McDermott and his growing flock again called upon architect James Murphy, this time to build them the soaring and spectacular sandstone testament of spirituality and faith we see today. A towering monument with a historical footprint and palpable neighborhood presence, standing now for over a century as a silent sentinel of Sacred Heart Parish's devotion.

The Gothic monolith, 194 feet long, 67 feet high and built of East Longmeadow brownstone, took five years to build. The church's cornerstone was laid and dedicated at an October 21, 1888, ceremony attended by 10,000 people and presided over by Bishop O'Reilly and Father McDermott. Unfortunately, and (presumably) unbeknownst to them at the time, the Bishop and good Father would not be present at the church's consecration. The Mass consecrating the Parish's new home was celebrated on October 18, 1896, by Bishop Thomas D. Beaven and Father Thomas Smyth, the replacements for the two earlier officiating clergymen, who had both passed-on before the second incarnation of Sacred Heart Church was completed.

Father McDermott was the driving force behind the construction of the new church, and had eventually become ill as a result of his over-exertions. On July 26, 1891, Father McDermott died in Paris, France, having left Springfield in May for rest and relaxation in Europe. His body was returned to his flock for burial. Father McDermott's funeral Mass was held on August 11, 1891, amidst the scaffolding and pillars of the unfinished church, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination into the service of the Roman Catholic priesthood. The sad Mass was the first ever held in the church, with Bishop O'Reilly pontificating over the service for his brother pioneering Springfield clergyman.

Father Smyth, who had come to Sacred Heart Parish from St. Mary's in Westfield - my family's home parish - continued Father McDermott's work as overseer of the church's construction, which was completed in 1896, as mentioned before, at a cost of $100,000. Father Smyth served as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish for almost forty years, from 1891 to 1928. He was nearly eighty years old by the end of his ministry, having entered this world on Christmas day in Ireland, 1848.

Because of unanticipated budget constraints, the spires which were planned for the two church towers, a 114 foot tall one on the 134 foot high south tower, which houses the church's carillion, and a 79 foot tall one on the 67 foot high north tower, were scratched from the plans, their construction put off for a future date, when funds became available. Imagining spires of that height atop the two already-giant towers is difficult, the smaller tower embellished as such gaining more than double its height, and the taller tower on the corner of Stafford and Chestnut Streets nearly that itself. As it is, chances are good that the parish will be satisfied for many years to come with the superb copper crowns added fairly recently to each tower, embellishments lending a distinctive look and a finishing touch. The crowns' peaks are adorned with Celtic crosses, mirroring those found in the church below. Designed by Springfield architect Stephen Jablonski, the crowns, or "pinnacles," were installed in May, 1999, by Springfield Steel Erectors. When the new copper "pinnacles" were first installed, many folks grumbled about the change in the church's profile, most notably that the new additions were too bright and shiny for the Medieval-looking church. Architect Jablonski, in a Union-News article, was convinced that once the copper aged, and developed its natural patina, the crowns would "look fabulous." He was right.

The addition of the crowns demonstrates Sacred Heart Parish's commitment toward growth and renewal throughout the years. The parish not only faithfully, and without reserve, maintains its property and place of worship, they improve the buildings they know and nurture as the congregation's spiritual home. From a half a million dollar interior renovation in 1992, to the $30,000 purchase and installation of the sixty ton Italian marble altar in 1951, Sacred Heart Parishioners have spared no expense or sacrifice in the maintenance and beautification of the awe-inspiring material expression of their faith embodied in stone. Easily apparent is a communal aesthetic inclination and sense of pride and duty of the parish to the image projected to whomever may pass, all eyes inevitably drawn to the structure as to fine art...even if they do happen to be doing sixty miles an hour on the interstate while trying to cross two incoming lanes to make it to their exit ramp in chaotic rush-hour traffic at the time.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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