WINCHESTER, Virginia — Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Winchester is celebrating its 150th year in the community.

The church, located at 130 Keating Drive, has one of the largest congregations of any church in the Winchester area and serves a parish that extends throughout the northern Shenandoah Valley.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the church typically had 3,200 families and about 10,000 members. The church holds seven weekend services — one on Saturday night and six on Sunday — with 500 to 600 people attending each service. The parish is served by three priests and a deacon.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church was dedicated on July 28, 1870. On July 28, Sacred Heart held a commemorative Mass. Father Stanley J. Krempa, who served as Sacred Heart’s pastor from 1999 to 2017, returned to the church for the Mass, which was streamed live. During the Mass, Krempa said anniversaries are “not primarily about the past” but should be “an encouragement for the future.”

“And yet the past six months have taught us that we can’t predict the future,” Krempa said, referencing the coronvirus pandemic. “Who would have thought on Jan. 1, that the world would be turned upside down? Fearful about the future, there may be a tendency to relive the past. But we know we can’t do that. We can visit the past, but we can’t live there.”

Although the coronavirus has forced the Sacred Heart parish to shake up its operations to ensure the safety of church members, Father Bjorn Lundberg, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, said that engagement with the faith is still strong and that parishioners still regularly come to the church for Mass, confession and prayer.

Adjacent to the church is Sacred Heart Academy, a private school of 260 students in pre-K through eighth grade. Between the parish and the school, Sacred Heart has an almost $4.5 million annual budget and about 70 employees.

“There’s a really active faith here,” Lundberg said. “A very rich faith, a lot of families, all age groups. People are very engaged.”

The early years

According to Krempa, “The story of Sacred Heart parish is a story of generosity. The people’s generosity to the parish, and the Lord’s generosity to us with his grace.”

Before Sacred Heart was formed, Catholics in Winchester gathered in private homes for Mass. Even during the Civil War, when Winchester switched sides at least 70 times, Catholics continued to gather for Mass and to observe the sacraments, Krempa said during his 150th anniversary speech.

“They were held by something deeper than blue and gray, and that something deeper was their faith,” Krempa said.

Winchester’s original Catholic church was an old stone church used by Union troops as a stable and destroyed after the Civil War. From 1864 to 1870, Winchester was without a Catholic church building.

During this time Catholics and their priests would worship in their homes and the Red Lion Tavern downtown, said Sacred Heart Academy Director of Business and Development Lisa Anthony-Price.

Construction for a new church on Loudoun Street began in 1868. According to Sacred Heart’s website, when Wheeling, West Virginia, Bishop John Kain came to dedicate Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on July 28, 1868, he donated a horse to be raffled off to benefit the building fund.

Sacred Heart became an independent parish in 1870 and the congregation held its first mass in the building on Loudoun Street that same year.

The parish joined the newly formed Arlington Diocese in 1974.

From 1870 until 1989, Winchester Catholics worshiped in Sacred Heart Church on Loudoun Street, now the offices of the Top of the Valley Regional Chamber. The church broke ground on its current building off Amherst Street in 1987 due to growing membership. The first mass was celebrated in the new building on Palm Sunday of 1989.

“The parish grew until it became not some distant outpost of Catholicism but the great, flagship parish of the northern Shenandoah Valley,” Krempa said.

The Sacred Heart Academy building predates the existing Sacred Heart church building. The school was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in 1957. In the 1950s, the school was staffed by about five nuns. Now the school has 22 full-time teachers, three part-time teachers and eight full-time aides.

The school has gone through various renovations and expansions over the years, including a 14,000-square-foot addition created in 2009 and a $4 million 11,475-square-foot gym completed in 2017.

The student population at Sacred Heart has also steadily increased. In 1999, there were 155 students. Last year, 260 students attended with enrollment going up nearly a dozen students every year, Lundberg said.

Adapting to a new world

Anthony-Price said that when she moved to Winchester in the late 1990s it was a “sleepy little” town. She came to the church in 1999 while interviewing for a job. She said when she walked into the church it was decorated for Easter and she was greeted with a warm welcome.

“I come from McLean where you don’t meet anyone else’s gaze,” Anthony-Price said. “It was just a lovely, warm, welcoming feeling. We moved out here and our first Sunday people came up to me and said, ‘Oh you’re new here!’”

Although church membership has steadily grown, Anthony-Price said church members have maintained a welcoming spirit.

The Sacred Heart parish, like most organizations, has faced many obstacles in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But so far, the parish has been able to adapt to the circumstances to meet the needs of the Catholic community.

Anthony-Price said the sanctuary can fit 850 people but with social distancing 150 to 200 people can be accommodated at one time. Earlier this year, for the first time in the church’s history, Sacred Heart began to regularly stream its services for people staying at home due to the pandemic.

“That’s when we were only able to have 10 people in the building at a time,” Lundberg said. “So the Masses were private. Then two months ago we started up again with Mass, but we split it between the gym and the school and the church. There was 2½-3 hours between events to air it out, clean and sanitize everything.”

Lundberg said people in high risk categories — those with compromised immune systems and older people — are encouraged to be careful. The church continuously updates information on its website, through email and a bulletin. Lundberg said priests clean their hands before giving Communion.

“One of the things we noticed is people want to feel connected,” Anthony-Price said. “The Catholic presence in the Shenandoah Valley is 150 years old. And people depend on their faith in corona times and pandemic times.”

Lundberg said although there are a lot of Masses streamed online nationwide, he was surprised to find out how much of a demand there was from church members to specifically see their own church.

“They especially want to see their pastor,” Anthony-Price said. “They want to stay connected. Father is responsible for the souls of the Shenandoah Valley and people really feel that. So when they are not connected to their church or their faith organization, they really feel the loss at a time when they need it the most.”

During her more than 20 years at Sacred Heart, Anthony-Price said the best change Sacred Heart has gone through, especially during the pandemic, is finding ways to “reach out to people however they want to be reached.”

Lundberg said the parish has recently held “rectory chats” — a live Q&A stream in which two Sacred Heart priests sit in front of a fireplace and answer questions from church members.

Anthony-Price said that during the pandemic Sacred Heart has also partnered with Catholic charities to distribute food.

“We’ve got a strong bulletin, we have a website, a strong social media presence,” Anthony-Price said. “I think what Father Lundberg did during the pandemic using a whole new technology and making it easier for the older folks who may not be as tech savvy to connect with their faith, that’s probably the biggest change. We deliver Christ’s love in any number of ways, however we can reach people.”