By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 7, 2022
ATLANTA—Since the 19th century, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has served as a beacon of faith. With its twin towers above Peachtree Street, one of the oldest faith communities in the Archdiocese of Atlanta is marking 125 years since the dedication of the historic red brick church.
The parish is using the milestone to reimagine how to serve its Midtown neighbors and inviting people to encounter Jesus. A series of special events is planned, leading to the dedication anniversary.
Members of the Waldron family have sat in the pews under the soaring ceiling and stained-glass windows since the 1940s.
Fran Carroll and her older brother Patrick Waldron grew up in Atlanta’s West End where they worshipped at St. Anthony of Padua Church and were students at its parochial school.
Carroll, 73, tagged along for Mass at the then Sacred Heart Church as a youngster with her grandmother, who lived a few blocks away near the Fox Theatre. When her own young family lived in Cobb County in the early 1970s, they drove weekly to remain in the parish. Now, she lives in the “gravitational pull” of the church and is there all the time, Carroll laughed. She recently retired from the construction industry and serves on many parish committees.
As the only basilica in the archdiocese, it signals how its members live their faith outside the church walls, Carroll said.
“To become a basilica, you can’t just be a building,” she said. “You have to be in the community. It’s a commitment to give love to people.”
Parishioners volunteer and financially support Midtown Assistance Center for the working poor, the Gift of Grace House for women living with HIV, make weekly prison visits and take on other outreach ministries.
Waldron’s early memories of the downtown basilica include being an eighth grader at the neighboring Marist School. When he retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Waldron, 76, settled in the Inman Park neighborhood and has been at the parish for a dozen years. He is the leader of the Knights of Columbus with its 50 members.
“I’ve found the people to be warm and welcoming, and there is diversity of people. It checks all the boxes,” he said.
Two anniversaries: parish founding and building dedication
In 1897, a new church designed in the French Romanesque style was built far from the bustling Marietta Street businesses surrounding the original parish church. With a new building came a new name, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
At the November 22 blessing of its cornerstone, the streets were “crowded with people, and many stood on the rafters above and on the porches of adjoining dwellings to secure a view of the proceedings,” reported The Atlanta Constitution. The church building was dedicated on May 1, 1898.
It is the second oldest Catholic parish in the archdiocese, with its founding in 1880 under a different name. In 2030, the community will mark its 150-year jubilee.
The parish draws some 1,230 active households, coming from 166 zip codes around the Atlanta area. But its location also draws convention-goers, tourists and fans attending sporting events. The constant new faces in the pews requires the parish “to be a place of radical hospitality” for its members and visitors, said Father John Howren, rector of the basilica and pastor.
Opportunities to serve more
Members of the Hispanic community have also grown the parish. Families come to attend the only Spanish Mass in the urban center of Atlanta.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe draws a crowd, along with mariachis to play in honor of the Virgin Mary. During the holy days around Easter, a dramatic re-creation of the crucifixion of Jesus brings together Spanish and English speakers.
The boom of the Midtown and downtown apartments gives the parish a chance to reimagine how to reach a new generation of women and men to encounter Jesus Christ. Also, the parish is rethinking how to draw people back to communal worship and its community after COVID-19 social distancing.
“As I see it, this work is our responsibility; and then we let God be responsible for the results,” said Father Howren.
Months of celebrations planned
Father Howren said in an email the milestone is “a chance to remember our forebears, to celebrate who we are as their legacy, and to prayerfully consider in the current landscape how we can best be disciples of Christ going forward.”
A series of special events is scheduled during the next months leading to the church dedication:
- On Wednesday, Dec. 14, starting at 7 p.m., there will be an Advent Lessons & Carols, followed by a Gaudeamus reception.
- A Mass on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, will welcome back parishioners who once worshipped at the parish, or attended the many schools affiliated with the church or St. Joseph’s Infirmary School of Nursing. The homecoming Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m.
- The community will celebrate a Mardi Gras dinner and dance on Feb. 18.
- In March, volunteers will have the chance to participate in a service project to prepare a new time capsule. (The time capsule mentioned in an 1897 article has not been located.)
- The celebration culminates the weekend of April 29-30 with Masses celebrating the 125 years since the dedication.
Most events will take place at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart Church, located at 353 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. For information, contact the church office at 404-522-6800 or visit sacredheartatlanta.org.