Sacred Heart Parish: Looking back on 150 years

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published May 11, 2011

 Sacred Heart Parish is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Sacred Heart Parish is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Photo by Edward Osinski

ROSEVILLE — The building as residents recognize it today was built in 1950, but the church was born almost a century earlier, just days before the start of the Civil War.

On April 1, 1861, the archbishop of Assumption Grotto Church was given permission to start a new Catholic parish, which would be called Sacred Heart, at Utica Junction, or Utica and Gratiot, to serve the growing congregation in what was then a quiet farming area.

A nearby resident, Daniel Corby, donated three acres of his land for Sacred Heart to be built on, and for two-and-a-half years before the first building was erected, Mass was given every other week from a nearby building with the archbishop, Father Amandus Van Den Driessche, commuting by horse and buggy from Detroit.

By the 1880s, the population in the rural community had grown and the church opened its first school, offering eight grades and servicing 12 students. By the mid-1900s the school had approximately 2,000 students and offered grades K-12.

A family tradition
“Myself and my two brothers and my stepsister, all went to school there, and we all walked because that was just the way things were back then,” said Patricia Chownyk, a lifetime member of the congregation and president of the Roseville Genealogical and Historical Society. “I had six kids, and they all went to school there too, or until it closed.”

The school closed in June of 1971 because of $730,000 in mounting debt to the archdiocese. For four years the building was used for various church activities, but at a cost of $35,000 a year in maintenance and another $35,000 a year in interest to the archdiocese, a decision was made to sell the property.

The school was sold to the Baptist Academy for $700,000, but within a couple of years of the sale, the academy stopped making payments toward the building and their account went into delinquency, causing Sacred Heart to be unable to satisfy its debt with the archdiocese.

“They sold it to the Baptist church and the Baptist church let it go,” Chownyk said. “We still haven’t gotten over that — us old-timers, that is.”

After a fire in 1981, the building was vacated by the Baptist Academy and sat empty for four years before, through extensive litigations, the tax lien was lifted and the building deeded back to Sacred Heart. By this time, though, it had been vandalized multiple times and was in need of extensive repairs, so the church saw it in their best interest to have it demolished.

“It was demolished so the cemetery could be expanded,” Chownyk said. “The high school was located where the cemetery is now.”

The high school was only one of many properties the church lost over the years and then got back.

When established as a church, the boundaries of Sacred Heart stretched from just west of Schoenherr to Jefferson and from Stephens to 14 Mile, but over time its footprint has shrunk to one-fourth that size.

“The archdiocese opened 17 churches out of what used to be Sacred Heart,” Chownyk said.

Among changes, Sacred Heart remains
Most of the churches that were cut out of Sacred Heart’s boundaries were established in the 1950s and ‘60s when the suburban population around metropolitan Detroit was booming. St. Barnabas, St. Veronica, St. Isaac Jogues, Holy Innocents and St. Margaret are some of the parishes that sprouted from Sacred Heart.

“I guess they thought that the population would keep growing, and people would keep having the same amount of babies,” Chownyk said. “But the population is declining and our congregations shrinking. I live in constant fear they are going to close us down.”

St. Germaine Church was recently incorporated into St. Gertrude because of a declining congregation, she noted.

“I encourage people whenever I see them, I say, ‘You used to come to church here; you can come back,’” Chownyk said.

She’s very passionate about the church. She grew up going there and still does every week.

“I probably have more information about the church than anybody because I’m one of the people that have been there the longest now.”

Father Eugene Katcher became pastor of Sacred Heart in 2004, and although he hasn’t been with the church long, he was impressed by the church’s history and immediately set out to make the building look like the historical landmark it is.

In his time there, he’s restored the marble floor at the altar and commissioned paintings and detail work that has transformed the church interior to match the Mediterranean Revival design of its exterior.

“Our church has always been beautiful, but now it looks like the historic church that it is,” Chownyk said.

Reason to celebrate
To honor 150 years of history, Sacred Heart will hold a church picnic on June 5 at Rotary Park and an anniversary Mass followed by a dinner at Eastpointe Manor on Oct. 23.

“We have a lot of activities planned to fundraise and celebrate the anniversary,” said Mike Clover, a member of the church’s 150th anniversary commission.

Some of the other events include a community garage sale that does not yet have a set date, a spaghetti dinner on Feb. 18, 2012, and a silent auction and mini-bazaar April 21-22, 2012.

Raffle tickets will be on sale to help raise funds for the anniversary dinner through Oct. 23. Tickets are $5 and available before and after church services.

“We’re inviting Archbishop (Allen) Vigneron to give the service, and we are inviting back all the former priests and nuns and possibly the preachers too,” Chownyk said.

Over the course of its existence, Sacred Heart has survived wars, the Great Depression and changing times in general, all without ever altering its welcoming atmosphere and small-town hospitality. It’s a place loved by its parishioners, respected by other parishes and recognized by the community as a church with 150 years full of heart.