Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

While Monsignor Brochu waited for the space at the corner of Marcy and Main Streets to become available for his new church, the French-Canadian community in Southbridge was expanding by leaps and bounds. Masses were added for an overflow crowd to the limited church on Pine Street by using the top floor of the Brochu Academy, but even this was not enough room for the expanding French speaking Catholic community in Southbridge.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

On November 15, 1908, the Bishop of Springfield created the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in the ‘flats’ section of Southbridge and named Father Emile St. Onge as the founding pastor. The new community met initially in the local armory building at the corner of Central and Hook Streets while they collected funds and organized their faithful to become a parish. By 1910, they built the parish school and in the center of the building was a large auditorium and gym that served as the parish’s worship space for almost two decades. Even today the stained glass windows that were on either side of the altar there are still installed. The Sisters of the Assumption came to staff the school and lived first at Notre Dame Convent and then at a home on Mechanic Street until Sacred Heart Parish finished its convent which was blessed on December 11, 1911.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

In 1913, after only five years of service, Father St. Onge retired since he suffered from crippling rheumatism. Father William Ducharme was appointed as acting administrator and was named the second pastor of the parish in 1918. Transferred to Worcester in 1925, he was succeeded by Father Victor Epinard who would guide the parish through the construction of its new church. In the summer of 1926, construction began on the church for Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.

The church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Southbridge cost approximately $350,000 to build. Designed by John Donahue of Springfield, the contractor was H. U. Bail of Southbridge. It is a Gothic style architecture adjacent to the rectory facing Charlton Street. It is built of Quincy seam and faced granite and stone. Ornamental towers flank the main entrance at each side. The ceiling was a corbeled pattern with stenciled designs and an open buttressing framework. The main altar was magnificent of Carrera white marble with a stately statue of the patron, the Sacred Heart of Jesus enshrined over the tabernacle and the Saints Peter and Paul at each end of the main altar.

To have entered Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was to be overwhelmed by the striking beauty of the stained glass windows. Depictions of the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary in deep tones of red and orange dominated the sanctuary while smaller ones detailing the joyful and glorious mysteries of the rosary lined the nave along the side aisles. The clerestory windows with medallions of beloved saints raised one’s eyes and soul heavenward by the beauty that lined the nave. These hand painted and kiln fired windows were the artistry of Francis Xavier Zettler of Munich, Germany. Zettler was the master glass painter to the Royal Court of Bavaria for over forty years. Highly regarded in Europe there were limited churches in the United States where his artwork was installed.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

In a fundraising brochure from 1980, under the leadership of Father Norman Tremblay, a native son of the parish and the pastor at the time, an expert consulted by the parish affirmed that ‘the large number of windows at Sacred Heart are Zettler’s greatest achievement in the Western Hemisphere.’

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

In August of 1955, Hurricane Diane barreled up the East Coast from the warm waters of the Caribbean and over three days poured several inches of water across most of New England. The Quinebaug River which runs through most of the town of Southbridge, and directly behind the property of Sacred Heart Parish, was already overflowing its banks when a greater tragedy struck. The Great Pond Dam in Charlton, softened by the steady rains from Hurricane Connie less than a week earlier and now receiving several more inches of water, finally gave way resulting in tons of water roaring down Cady Brook through Charlton to meet up with the Quinebaug in the ‘flats.’ Unprecedented flooding occurred in Southbridge with an accumulated total of $25 million dollars in damage (in 1955 dollars).

Many of the parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish lost their homes. For several days, with bridges washed out all over town, areas were flooded and other parts were isolated from relief supplies and emergency services. In the heart of the most heavily damaged area was Sacred Heart Church and her parish property. Flooding filled the basements of all the church buildings and most of the first floor areas. One of the stories told is that every piano, in the convent, the school, and the church was lost from the flooding; a small detail that identifies the sweeping and unfathomable damage to the parish and her parishioners.

Father Ovila Gevry would follow Father Philbert Therrien who died at the end of 1955 and would rally his parishioners to meet their own needs as well as their parish in rebuilding from the flood. In three short years, the parish and her members had rebuilt and recovered to fittingly celebrate a half century of life, their Golden Jubilee as a parish in 1958. The next decades would witness the challenges of a changing Church from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the closing of the parish school, the introduction of bingo to supplement the parish stewardship, and eventually the loss of the beloved Sisters of the Assumption in the parish. Numbers for vocations and subsequently for faithful Catholics continued to decline as manufacturing diminished in the area and moved to other parts of the country and even the world. The faithful persevered with cabarets, festivals, and increased giving, but the expenses were beyond the ability of an aging community and a declining Catholic presence in Southbridge. Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding in 1998, but there was a foreboding anxiety about how it would continue to survive. In 2007, when Father Charles Armey was reassigned, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish was joined with Notre Dame Parish in town to share the pastoral leadership of Father Leo Paul Leblanc as the pastor of the separate canonical parishes.