Sacred Heart Church is rich with architectural, spiritual, social history

Among East Sacramento’s most renowned architectural structures is the Sacred Heart Church at 3860 J St., where for eight decades, many local residents have come to gain spiritual guidance, while making many lifelong friends along the way.

Monsignor Robert P. Walton stands in front of the Sacred Heart Church at 39th and J streets, where he has served as the church’s pastor since 2002. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)Just last week, for instance, longtime Sacred Heart Church members Carolyn Granucci and Bev Geremia met with the East Sacramento News to discuss their many memories of the church, its influence in their lives and the friendships they have made during this time.

Geremia expressed her gratitude for the local Catholic church, its parish school and the many people, including Granucci, who she has made longtime friends with through her membership in the church.

“I’ve definitely made a lot of friendships over the years and our family has made a lot of friendships (through the church),” Geremia said. “Many of my children’s best friends are from their days at Sacred Heart School and through the church. It’s just that kind of a place.”

Granucci echoed Geremia’s words and added that although many of her closest childhood friends from Sacred Heart School, as well as the church, moved away from Sacramento many years ago, various reunions have proven that these friendships remain extremely strong.

“We can go many years without seeing each other and then when we get together, we pick up right where we left off, like we were never apart,” said Granucci, a lifelong member of the church who attended Sacred Heart School from 1944 to 1953.

The many stories of close friendships and spiritual ties among the church’s parishioners date back to the establishment of the church in 1931.


Parish people

In 1922, noting that there was a need for a permanent parish church in East Sacramento, Bishop Patrick Keane, who served as the third Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento from 1922 to 1928, purchased the property where the church would later be built.

The Sacred Heart Church, which was designed in the fashion of a church in Ireland, was dedicated by Bishop Robert Armstrong on June 5, 1931. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)Following the Oct. 6, 1929 death of the parish’s first pastor, the Rev. Philip Brady, Bishop Robert J. Armstrong appointed the Rev. Michael L. Lyons to serve as Brady’s successor. Lyons began these duties on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1929.

The following year, Lyons, who decided that the time was right for the construction of permanent parish buildings in East Sacramento, consulted Armstrong, who recommended that a church and priest offices be constructed on the 39th and J streets property that Keane had purchased.

Although the topic of constructing a parish school in East Sacramento was also discussed around this time, the idea was temporarily abandoned due to the inability to secure teachers.

The parish was fortunate to have the talented architect Harry J. Devine, among its members during its early years.

Devine, who had previously designed other churches in Northern California, was commissioned to create the plans for the new church and the offices and residence of the priests.

By November 1930, the plans were completed and William C. Keating was selected as the project’s general contractor.

Despite their quality, fine craftsmanship and many details, the new, $139,000 church buildings were constructed in a considerably short period of time.

Within a month after the plans were completed, work began at the 39th and J streets site, which had previously been home to the two-story East Sacramento Public School building, which was later briefly used by Christian Brothers High School students and faculty during the construction of the high school’s new campus at 21st and Y (now Broadway) streets.


Expanding the faith

The cornerstone of the church was laid on Sunday, March 15, 1930 and about four months later, the priests’ residence and offices were completed and being utilized by the priests, who had been living in a rented residence at 3801 H St.

The interior of the church is rich with details, including its domed ceiling, statuary, marble pillars, paintings, stained glass windows and pair of altars. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)To the delight of members of the parish, the lead, front page headline of the Sunday, Sept. 13, 1931 edition of The Register, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Sacramento, read: “New Sacramento church to be dedicated Sunday (Sept. 13).”

During this special, dedication day, Bishop Armstrong blessed the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which had been known as St. Stephen’s Church at its original site.

The name, St. Stephen’s Church, was used by the parish for its temporary church structure on the 39th and I streets property that had been purchased by Brady, who had believed it would be too expensive to have parish buildings constructed at the 39th and J streets site.

This name change resulted through a petition requesting that the church be dedicated to the “Sacred Heart.”

The petition was signed by about 500 parishioners and presented by the Women of the Altar Society of St. Stephen’s.

Permission to change the church’s name was later granted by Bishop Armstrong.

The small, square, temporary church building, which held its first Mass on Feb. 7, 1926, had received its name upon the request of Ellen Bowden, who provided funds for the development of the church and whose father and brother were both named Stephen.


Classic design

The Sacred Heart Church, which was designed in the fashion of a church in Ireland, is known for its brick architecture, decorative terra cotta, high, domed ceiling and many other details, which include 22 stained glass windows, 16 paintings, which include a series depicting the crucifixion of Christ, five large statues and 12 chandeliers.

Bev Geremia, left, and Carolyn Granucci are among the many dedicated members of the Sacred Heart Church. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)Seven of the stained glass windows were imported from Ireland in the spring of 1932.

The church also includes a pair of altars, 72 wooden pews and 10 large marble pillars, which support a dozen archways on the south end of the church.

Early events in the church included the first wedding – the marriage of Mary O’Brien to Adam Charles Goetz – on Sept. 18, 1931 and the first confirmation on March 30, 1932.

In 1934, with the assistance of the Sisters of Mercy, Lyons helped develop the parish’s Sacred Heart School, which initially served first through fourth grade students. By the fall of 1936, the school included eight grades.

The school, which is located at 3933 I St., began with 60 students, who met in four temporary classrooms within the old St. Stephens Church building.

A “permanent” school was built in 1945 and has since lost its “permanent” status, as a new Sacred Heart School is being constructed across the street from the current school. The new school is scheduled to open in September.

The church’s current pastor, Monsignor Robert P. Walton, said that the church’s elementary school is an integral part of the parish’s history.

“It’s difficult to separate the church’s history from the school’s history,” Walton said. “Sacred Heart Church is synonymous with the parish school.”

Jeanne Winnick Brennan, a spokesperson for Sacred Heart Church, said that the opening of the new school is a great accomplishment in today’s world.

The 1953 graduates of Sacred Heart School are among the school’s more than 3,000 alumni. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Granucci)“The school is so rooted in this community that it is getting a new (school site and buildings) and that’s an unusual situation when many schools are closing,” Brennan said. “So, that’s a lot to be thankful for.”

The forthcoming school opening will undoubtedly begin one more important chapter in the parish’s extensive history, which began 84 years ago.

This history includes the celebration of the Sacred Heart Church’s 75th anniversary in 2006.

During this celebration’s Feast of Sacred Heart Mass, Monsignor Walton summarized the church’s importance to many people in the community in a very fitting fashion.

“This sacred space is so much more than great architectural beauty, magnificent, stained glass windows, inspiring space and liturgical appointments. It is filled with living memories of people…who have called Sacred Heart Church their spiritual home, and for many of you, for most of your lives.”


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