Closed church lives on

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Several weeks ago Pat Brown, 82, was sitting in her Fairfax Station home reading in the Catholic Herald about the dedication of the new St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg.

"I looked at the first page and said, 'Oh, a new church in Leesburg.' I turned the page and my eye hit that altar," she said. "I was flabbergasted. There can't be two altars like that. I read on. I was amazed."

In 1952, Pat Killoran and Paul J. Brown were married at Sacred Heart Church in Vailsburg, N.J. It was one of thousands of ceremonies performed over the years in the church built in 1929 in the parish founded in 1892. Generations of parishioners were baptized there, educated at the parish school, married and eventually buried in the church cemetery.

Like many parishes in the Northeast, it was a living community of Catholics with thousands of parishioners whose lives revolved around their parish community.

"It was the center of everything in Vailsburg," said Brown.

Central to Sacred Heart Church, of course, was the altar. It was a witness to the sacraments and to the Brown wedding June 7, 1952.

Brown and her new husband, freshly graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., went back to Paul's home in Northern Virginia and then on to travel the world as a military officer. They raised two daughters in places all over the globe.

Brown continued to hold on to her roots in Vailsburg, going back frequently to visit family and friends. Like most parish children, Brown went to all eight grades of Sacred Heart School, and after graduation she and her classmates remained close.

About 10 years ago, fellow Sacred Heart graduate Bill Butler began organizing reunions to celebrate their shared heritage at the parish and school.

For the past decade the group of about 25, out of an original class of 44, met annually, usually at the New Jersey shore where most now live, but sometimes in Vailsburg. A classmate of Brown's, Father Henry Schreitmueller, sometimes celebrated Mass for the group.

In 2010, the last year that Sacred Heart was a Catholic church, Brown and her fellow grads marked the church's end. Brown said that that for years they could see that the parish and the church were in decline, and they mourned the passing of their beloved church and school.

At that last Mass, the church was being renovated, and the new owners believed that the sanctuary was unsafe. So Mass was celebrated by Father Schreitmueller in the sacristy behind the altar. It was big enough to comfortably hold the 50 people in attendance. Chairs were brought in so people could sit.

Soon after that Mass, Sacred Heart Church was deconsecrated, and its sacred objects were removed and shared with other parishes in dioceses around the country, including the Arlington Diocese.

Brown sent copies of the Catholic Herald with the dedication story to her reunion group. They told Brown that they want to take a bus down to see the altar at its new home in Leesburg.

Brown, now a parishioner of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station, went to St. John the Apostle for Sunday Mass recently. She sat in the second pew near the aisle, "where I could take in that magnificent, memorable edifice of my youth," she said.

Brown walked through the new church and saw her old altar and statues of Mary and Joseph from Sacred Heart's side altars.

"I somehow was overcome by a tremendous feeling of joy," said Brown.

There were many memories "locked in those beautiful, graceful pillars of another magical era."

The old Sacred Heart Church is now the Positive Proof Deliverance Church. It's Baptist- far removed from the old Irish, German and Italian Catholics who built the first church and community.

Sacred Heart Church lives on in other Catholic churches around the country and in the hearts of people like Brown and her contemporaries, who remember what it was like so long ago.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012