WINCHESTER, Virginia — Approaching the main entrance to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, one of the first things visitors will 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 1861-1865.
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 Lundberg, pastor.
“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 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 in the church entryway notes the presence of Catholics in Frederick County when the county was formed in 1743. It 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 Harpers 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 Kain, started raising money for a new church in Winchester, and soon construction began.
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 Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at the Handley Regional Library in downtown Winchester.
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 July 28.
The original building remains and now is the home of Eagle Heights Presbyterian Church after being used for a while as an event center.
Msgr. Stanley Krempa, Sacred Heart pastor from 1999 to 2017, 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, Krempa told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.
Krempa, now retired and living in Alexandria, will return to concelebrate a Mass with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington July 28 to commemorate the 150th anniversary and 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.”
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.
He 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. Sacred Heart is the fourth-oldest parish in the Arlington Diocese, after the Basilica of St. Mary (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.
Lundberg said that although anniversary celebrations will be muted this year because of 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 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 Lundberg said there are 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,” Lundberg said. “The Sacred Heart can give us the love and understanding we need to deal with all of these problems.”
Miller is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.