By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published July 21, 2005
Mary Alice Hearn was at her usual post at the front desk of Sacred Heart Church when Mother Teresa walked into the room.
The church had been preparing for her visit for a long time, but nothing could prepare Hearn for the feelings that would wash over her as she met the diminutive nun.
“There was this sense of electricity. We were in awe,” Hearn, former parish secretary of Sacred Heart, said. “That’s the only way to describe it.”
Upon being introduced to Mother Teresa, the nun put both her hands on either side of Hearn’s and blessed her.
“It was so wonderful. I almost didn’t want to wash my hands ever again,” Hearn joked. “To see her, she was just so pious and unassuming. I’ll never forget it.”
In Hearn’s nearly 20 years of service at Sacred Heart, there have been many experiences that have touched her, but none quite like Mother Teresa’s 1995 visit to the parish.
“Everything that has happened at Sacred Heart, I’ve just been so privileged and honored to be a part of it,” she said.
The history of Sacred Heart, which celebrates its 125th year as a parish in 2005, is filled with milestones. On June 5 parishioners old and young gathered to celebrate the parish’s anniversary in a Mass celebrated by then pastor Msgr. Frank Giusta and Father T.J. Meehan, who became pastor on June 16. Concelebrants included Msgr. Walter Donovan, who is retired and in residence at Sacred Heart, Msgr. Daniel O’ Connor, former pastor, and Father Thony Jean, former parochial vicar. Also on hand representing the Marist community were Father Paul Hachey, SM, judicial vicar, Father Joel Konzen, SM, principal of Marist School, Atlanta, and Father David Musso, SM, superior of the Marist community in Atlanta and school chaplain.
The second oldest parish in Atlanta, Sacred Heart was founded in 1880 and originally called Sts. Peter and Paul. The first church, a small wooden building, was located 12 blocks from the present location on the southwest corner of Marietta and Alexander streets.
St. Joseph’s Infirmary, now Saint Joseph’s Hospital on Peachtree Dunwoody Road, was established on Baker Street in 1880 and the Sisters of Mercy, parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul, cared for the sick and poor.
In September 1897, four months after governance of the parish was given to the Marist order, a lot on the corner of Peachtree and Ivy streets, not far from the infirmary, was purchased for $12,000. Parishioners contributed over $10,000 toward the construction of the new church, which cost $25,000.
The church was dedicated May 1,1898, by Savannah Bishop Thomas A. Becker and the parish name was changed to Sacred Heart.
The parish has also played a major role in the history of Catholic education in Atlanta.
In 1901 Marist College, now the Marist School on Ashford Dunwoody Road, opened on the grounds of Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart School was opened by the Sisters of St. Joseph for grades one through six in 1909 and educated children for over 50 years, closing in 1964. Sacred Heart High School for Girls began in 1913 and served for 45 years until St. Pius X High School opened in Atlanta in 1958. St. Joseph’s High School, located at Sacred Heart, opened in 1961 and closed in 1978.
In November 1968 the first regularly scheduled Mass in Spanish in the archdiocese began at Sacred Heart.
In 1976 Sacred Heart Church was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its “artistically significant architecture.”
Twin octagonal towers, which rise 137 feet above street level and are illuminated at night, were once the tallest points of the Peachtree neighborhood. Between the towers is a rose window with the Sacred Heart in its center that reflects kaleidoscopic colors into the church when hit by rays of sunlight.
Sacred Heart celebrates its beauty not just in its structure, but more importantly in its ministry. The parish has a long history of outreach to those in the downtown neighborhoods and to those living with AIDS.
Father Meehan said that the church inspires people with both its old traditions and its new ones.
“When people come to Sacred Heart, their eyes are immediately cast to the ceiling and all around. It invites them to pray. It is a traditional looking church and it gives people a wonderful experience of prayer,” Father Meehan said. “Some may think that all we have is antiquity, but we have many opportunities for service and enrichment.”
Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, former parish administrator, said her most cherished memories of serving at the church involve experiences of outreach.
“I loved visiting the elderly and the sick,” she said. “But one of the most special ministries I had was one which I was never expecting—ministering to persons with AIDS.”
After visiting area hospitals, Sister Valentina, now the director of pastoral ministry at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, met many people living with AIDS and saw the great need for ministry.
“I got to know these people in a very personal way, and I saw the beauty in them. I was drawn to them in a special way,” she said. “The God within them met the God within me.”
Father Meehan began ministering in 2004 at Sacred Heart as a parochial vicar while also serving as a hospital chaplain. It was the service opportunities of Sacred Heart, he said, that first attracted him to the church.
“I think service is a very big part of the church, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud about,” he said, noting the parish has what he believes is the oldest St. Vincent de Paul conference in the archdiocese. The parish also has an extremely active Haitian ministry and recently built a medical clinic to serve the people of St. Pierre, Haiti.
“Everyone in the parish is always anxious to hear updates of the Haitian ministry,” he said.
Sacred Heart parishioners are not passive Catholics, Father Meehan said.
“There is a great spirit here, and I have never seen anything like the interest we have here in adult education,” he said. “People don’t just come to Mass on Sundays and go home.”
Instead, many adults participate in Disciples’ School, continuing Catholic education classes held from September through May, during which participants learn more about their faith from various speakers and activities.
Sacred Heart has approximately 800 families hailing from many different parts of the world.
“I think our diversity makes us a lot richer,” Father Meehan said. “You can realize that beauty of the variety of people from different cultures and races that make up our parish. You never feel alone. Anyone can look around and see someone that looks like a sister or a brother.”
Though he was unable to celebrate the anniversary Mass with the people of Sacred Heart because of the annual Eucharistic Congress held the same weekend, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory acknowledged the great tradition of service at Sacred Heart in a letter published in the parish bulletin in English and Spanish.
“During these 125 years, the parish has also without fail seen to the needs of her own people, and though the character of the community has changed dramatically, especially during recent decades, life at Sacred Heart still thrives, and infuses energy and hopefulness into the surrounding community,” he wrote. “Perhaps the city of Atlanta has more than one heart, but Sacred Heart is certainly one of the healthiest, one of the most vital, and one that beats without ceasing, and pumps the life of the Gospel into the life of the city.”
Mary Beth Grady, who served as a co-chair for the 125th anniversary events, has been a parishioner of the parish for over 30 years.
“I love it because it is diverse, and it has that long tradition,” she said. “It is a caring, warm place to worship. The outreach ministries have been very important to me and my family.”
Grady and her husband have two sons, ages 21 and 18, who were baptized at the parish and served as altar boys. “The church has been a huge part of our family. Our family has really seemed to center around Sacred Heart.”
Grady and her fellow chairwoman, Nancy Ewing, planned the events for the anniversary with the intention of celebrating the history of the parish and bringing in new life.
“We wanted to bring new members in and educate them about the history of Sacred Heart, to show them our old traditions, but also to show how we’ve evolved, especially in our outreach, in ministries like Habitat for Humanity and our AIDS ministry.”
As young families continue to move into the parish, Grady hopes that Sacred Heart can remain a landmark in the city of Atlanta.
“We get new families in all the time. It’s what keeps us vibrant,” Grady said. “We want to ensure that the church stays an important part of the city.”
As for her own family, Grady hopes that Sacred Heart has had a lifelong influence on them, especially her sons.
“It’s always been a stability for me, and I hope it has given our boys a stability, too,” she said. “Sacred Heart has always made me feel like I had a home.”