By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 4, 2010
Sacred Heart Church in downtown Atlanta has been given the honor by the Vatican of being designated as a minor basilica.
The honor was bestowed Feb. 22 by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. A committee at the Peachtree Street parish, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, has worked for over two years on the historical, architectural and ecclesial materials that were submitted to the congregation for consideration, with the approval of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Father T.J. Meehan, pastor, announced the honor at Masses on Sunday, Feb. 28. Parishioners broke into applause when he told them “this beautiful and historic church has been elevated to the rank and status of a minor basilica.”
He later said that he believes the honor is “an affirmation of the faith of so many Atlanta families whose Catholic heritage can be traced back (to Sacred Heart) for more than 100 years.”
“When our church was built in 1898, no sacrifice was too great and no effort was spared to make sure that this remarkably beautiful sanctuary would continue to honor God and inspire generations of worshippers,” Father Meehan said.
In addition, he said, the papal recognition “especially honors our current members, some of whom remember well the decline of the surrounding neighborhood and business district in the 1970s and 1980s. Some, in those days, may have wondered if Sacred Heart was going to survive. Today, however, we have rebounded, with many new and younger families at Sacred Heart. … One of the important criteria for becoming a basilica was to show that our parish is vibrant and welcoming new members, and we’re very happy to show this is the case here at Sacred Heart.”
The parish has grown from 700 to 1,300 households in the last five years, the pastor said.
A church designated as a minor basilica must be a center of active and pastoral liturgy with a vibrant Catholic community and may have unique historical, artistic or religious import. In seeking the distinction, the parish must provide a detailed report with an album of photographs documenting the origin, history and religious activity of the church and its exterior and interior form, particularly regarding celebration of the sacraments. The idea originated with former pastor, Msgr. Steve Churchwell, a decade ago, and was revived about three years ago by a handful of dedicated parishioners, Father Meehan said.
“I congratulate the parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish who several years ago had requested that their church be designated a basilica in recognition of the historic importance of this church building,” Archbishop Gregory said. “As one of the oldest parish churches in the archdiocese, Sacred Heart links us to our religious heritage and to the many faithful Catholics who have gone before us. … I am sure that they will receive many other expressions of congratulations from parishioners throughout the archdiocese who have personal ties to or fond memories of our new Sacred Heart Basilica.”
The decree is intended to “strengthen the relation of this important church with the Chair of Peter and to make it an ideal center of special liturgical and pastoral ministry” in the archdiocese, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP, the secretary to the Vatican congregation wrote to Archbishop Gregory.
One way the link is demonstrated is by celebrating feasts in a special way that are linked to the papal office, including the Feb. 22 feast of the Chair of Peter, the June 29 feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul and the anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The papal symbol of crossed keys may be exhibited on banners and furnishings and on the seal of the basilica and those who devoutly make a visit to the basilica on certain feast days may obtain a plenary indulgence.
The parish was founded in 1880 and was originally known as Sts. Peter and Paul. When the French Romanesque church designed by architect W.T. Downing was dedicated in 1898, the parish was renamed in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Marist Fathers at that time cared for the parish, which included all of North Atlanta and 9,500 square miles of mission territory in North Georgia.
The first Catholic high schools in Atlanta were started there—Marist for boys and Sacred Heart for girls—and the original Saint Joseph’s Hospital was founded nearby. The pressed brick and terra cotta church was formally consecrated in 1920. Among many outstanding architectural features are 28 stained glass windows installed in 1902 from the Mayer Studios in Munich, Germany, twin octagonal towers and a rose window.
Among its parish ministries are the oldest continually operating St. Vincent de Paul conference in Georgia, active involvement with the poor in St. Pierre, Haiti, with those living with HIV/AIDS in Atlanta and with the Midtown Assistance Center that serves the working poor.
The word basilica comes from the Greek term for “royal hall.” There are two kinds of basilicas: major basilicas, the six great Roman churches, and the minor basilicas, which are important churches in Rome and abroad which the Holy Father has honored with this title.
Father Meehan said a Mass of elevation, with Archbishop Gregory presiding, will likely take place in combination with the 130th anniversary of the founding of the parish near the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June.