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Sacred Heart of Jesus Church marks 150-year history in Winchester

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Approaching the main entrance to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester, one of the first things you’ll notice is a 1,640-pound bell, consecrated in 1880, enshrined on a pedestal between the church and the rectory.

The bell is a prominent reminder of the historic roots of the parish that rose from the ashes of the Civil War in a rural market town that saw six battles and changed hands more than 70 times during the war years of 1861-65. 

This summer, the thriving 10,000-member parish marks its 150th anniversary, “although the Catholic presence in the Shenandoah Valley is much older,” said Father Bjorn C. Lundberg, pastor since 2017. “Like many Civil War towns in the South, Winchester was able to preserve
a lot of its history … but there is a real need to help people understand this amazing history,” said Father Lundberg, who was a history major in college.

Sacred Heart’s red brick building, dedicated in 1989, sits two miles west of downtown on a sprawling campus shared with Sacred Heart Academy, founded in 1957. A large bronze plaque inside the church entryway notes the presence of Catholics in Frederick County when the county was formed in 1743, and describes the stone chapel where they worshipped, built by a wealthy French diplomat in 1805. At that time, it was a mission of St. Peter’s Church in Harper’s Ferry, before West Virginia became a separate state.

The old stone chapel was destroyed in 1864, after it was used as a horse stable for the U.S. cavalry during the war. For the next six years, Catholics celebrated Mass in private homes. In 1868, the pastor of St. Peter’s, Father John J. Kain, started raising money for a new church in Winchester, and soon construction began on the corner of Loudoun and Cecil streets.

By 1870, the basement of the new church was finished, and the cornerstone was blessed and placed “in the honor of The Sacred Heart of Jesus,” according to a translation of a hand-lettered page in Latin that was among commemorative items found in a box inside the cornerstone. The items are now in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church Collection in the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at the Handley Regional Library in downtown Winchester.

Father Kain celebrated the first Mass in the basement of the new church in the summer of 1870, which is considered the founding year of the parish. The building was completed in 1878 and dedicated that July 28, according to a 1953 book, “A History of Sacred Heart Parish,” by Thomas M. Lacina and William C. Thomas, also part of the archives collection. The authors cite a Winchester Times article about the dedication, published July 31, 1878, that reported “The church was crowded to its utmost capacity and many were unable to gain admission at all.” The article said Father Kain, who by then had become bishop of Wheeling, “delivered an interesting and able sermon, in which he sketched the history of the Catholic Church in the Valley of Virginia, and particularly in Winchester, and gave a clear explanation of some of the points of the Catholic faith which are not generally understood.”

The Loudoun Street building is still standing, and now is the home of Eagle Heights Presbyterian Church, after being used for a while as an event center. The 1870 date can still be seen on the corner of the building, next to what is now the church parking lot. 

Msgr. Stanley J. Krempa, pastor of Sacred Heart from 1999 to 2017, is familiar with the 1953 book, and said it’s the only written history of the church he’s aware of. He noted that when the old building became an event center, the windows, baptismal font and other items were removed and are now at Christendom College in Front Royal, in a chapel modeled after the downtown church.

A large painting on canvas of Jesus pointing to his Sacred Heart surrounded by clouds and angels, which had been displayed on the ceiling of the church, also was removed and was kept in storage for a while at the new church, but it also has now been given to Christendom, Msgr. Krempa said. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, is a longtime parishioner at Sacred Heart, and is the author of a book about the history and theology of Sacred Heart devotions.

Msgr. Krempa, now retired and living in Alexandria, will return to concelebrate a Mass with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge July 28 in honor of the 150th anniversary, and will deliver the homily. He said Winchester “has a great deal of respect” for the church, “which could always be depended on to help with community needs.” Msgr. Krempa plans to speak about “the continuation of the faith and commitment of earlier Catholics who lived in the Winchester area, and being faithful to their witness.” An influx of Irish Catholic immigrants came to the Shenandoah Valley starting in the 1830s, many to work on the railroads, according to histories of the area.

“We are honored and happy Msgr. Krempa is able to come, because he is still so beloved here to this day,” said Father Lundberg, noting that this year also is the 50th anniversary of Msgr. Krempa’s ordination, in December, as well as the 25th anniversary of Sacred Heart’s adoration chapel.

Msgr. Krempa became the first pastor of St. Bridget of Ireland Church in Berryville in 2017, originally a mission of Sacred Heart. He retired in 2018, after being named a monsignor. He als served at St. Mary’s in Alexandria (now the Basilica of St. Mary) 1991-99, and presided at its 1995 bicentennial celebration. Sacred Heart is the fourth-oldest parish in the Arlington diocese, after the Basilica (1795) and two of its former mission churches: St. Mary of Sorrows in Fairfax and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Fredericksburg, both founded in 1858. St. Bridget’s was Sacred Heart’s third mission church. Until 1940, St. John the Baptist in Front Royal was a mission of Sacred Heart. St. John’s in Woodstock was also a mission until 1959.

Father Lundberg said that although anniversary celebrations will be muted this year due to concerns about the coronavirus and the safety of large public gatherings, the parish plans a yearlong series of events aimed at “renewing devotion to the Sacred Heart among parishioners,”
with catechetical materials and faith-formation programs to be announced, along with a new parish focus on adult education.

A variety of images and statues of the Sacred Heart can be seen around the church, from a bronze statue in the main entry courtyard to the round stained glass window above the main altar. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was championed by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun in the Order of the Visitation in the late 1600s, although Father Lundberg notes that there are many other scriptural and theological references to the Heart of God and Jesus throughout Christian history.

It is “a real treasure and hope, especially in COVID times, to discover that the Heart of God is there waiting for us,” said Father Lundberg. “The Sacred Heart can give us the love and understanding we need to deal with all of these problems.”

Find out more
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Msgr. Stanley J. Krempa will celebrate a livestreamed Mass in honor of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish July 28 at 6 p.m.
Go to sacredheartwinchester.org.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020