In the year 1862, the town of Southbury, Connecticut, was viewed as a rural, bucolic, serene community comprised of hard working, dedicated families who took pride in their land and what they believed to be important in their lives. In that year, the home of David Grant, located in the White Oak section of town near Main Street North and Route 67, was the site of a unique gathering experience. It was here, in the Grant home, that Reverend James Bohen celebrated the first mass in Southbury, which was recognized as a mission community to the Mother Church of St. John's in Watertown. Roman Catholics, although a minority and considered a distinctly different group among the community's congregations, had established themselves in the town even though there was a distance from the Watertown Catholic community. After this first celebration of mass, liturgies were offered on several occasions at the railroad station, which was then located at the top of Depot Hill Road. Later, and at intermittent intervals, priests, who would travel from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, came to celebrate for the faithful of the town. Jurisdiction then passed from Waterbury to the Church of New Milford for the spiritual and sacramental ministry to the Southbury community. For many years following the 1862 event, the Catholics of Southbury gathered with Catholics from Woodbury and celebrated their faith together in the old Town Hall in Woodbury.
In 1884, the Catholic population of Southbury had blossomed into forty families. The time had clearly come when steps would have to be undertaken to construct a permanent local church. Father James C. O'Brien, Pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, began the construction of the church which was to become the worshipping home for this infant community. The site for the church was donated by Mr. Dennis Hunihan. It was a small parcel of land located on Route 6. On this hillside setting, overlooking the mountains to the west, the small, white clapboard church was erected.
In November of 1884, the cornerstone was laid by the Reverend James Hughes, V. G., assisted by Reverends H. T. Brady of Ansonia, P. M. Kennedy of Birmingham, J. Fagan of Naugatuck, J. M. McCarthy and M. Cray of Newtown. The sermon for this dedication service was preached by Father W. A. Hatry.
The first mass in the newly constructed Sacred Heart Church was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1884. Because the Southbury church was still attached to Watertown under the pastorate of Father Lancaster, masses were celebrated only twice a month. By the year 1890, the Catholic population of Southbury had increased to seventy-five families. The property adjoining the church was purchased to be used as a cemetery and was blessed in the summer of 1890 by Bishop McMahon of Hartford. It was at this same time that the parish gained the status of a mission of St. Rose Church in Newtown.
In 1940, the State of Connecticut constructed the Southbury Training School, dedicated to the care of the mentally retarded. Because of the size of this facility and the number of clients housed there, it became necessary to assign the first full-time pastor to Sacred Heart Church. Father Cornelius Buckley was entrusted with the responsibility of ministering to the spiritual needs of the rapidly growing Catholic community, as well as being designated as Catholic Chaplain for the clients at the Training School.
In 1944, Father Buckley was succeeded by Father Paul Spodnik, who remained pastor until 1950, when he was replaced by Father John J. Kripas. The family of Sacred Heart had grown during this time to nearly two hundred and fifty families, with an additional sixty seasonal families who became summer residents in cottages along Lake Zoar, as well as the Pomperaug, Housatonic and the Shepaug Rivers. The small wooden church, with a seating capacity of a hundred and twenty persons, proved to be inadequate in accommodating the Catholics of Southbury, especially during the summer months.
Due to this obvious need for a larger church and additional room for parish activities, a new site, one more centrally located to the entire town and distanced from the Woodbury parish of St. Theresa, was taken into consideration. With the permission of Archbishop Henry J. O'Brien, a five-acre tract of land called "the sand lot corner" was purchased from Mr.Corbin C. Wheeler, at a cost of five thousand dollars. This parcel of land, located on Route 6 (now known as Main Street South) and Route 172, could only be used to erect a new Catholic Church, according to the purchase agreement.
In 1957, permission was granted by Archbishop O'Brien to erect a new church with an adjoining hall as well as a two bay garage to be used for storage, until that time when a rectory could be built on the property.
The parishioners of Sacred Heart enthusiastically responded to the need for a new church and sacrificed in order to pledge the staggering amount of $80,000 dollars to fulfill this need. The contract to build the edifice was awarded to the Waterbury Construction Company, A. William Daddona, President. The architects selected were Mr. George Vuinovich of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey and Mr. Edward Bushka of Hartford, Connecticut.
For the parishioners, the sight of seeing their new church being built was an incredible spectacle. The size alone, so vast in comparison to the existing church, caused some to question if the structure capable of seating 289 people, would ever be filled to capacity?
A colonial "L" design structure, faced in brick, was erected in order to maintain the architectural motif for which the area was noted. It was accentuated by a thirty-foot steeple covered in aluminum. The stained glass windows were considered the primary focal attraction of the church; these windows, selected and designed by Father Kripas, depicted prominent aspects of Christ's' earthly ministry. A parking lot, located in the rear of the church property, was created to accommodate over one hundred automobiles—should that occasion ever arise.
On June 15, 1958, the new church and center was dedicated by Archbishop O'Brien. During this time of preparation and construction, the State simultaneously undertook the construction of a new super highway known as 1-84, with on and off ramps located at the church intersection. Changes are readily seen in the number of people now attracted to this rural town. The Church, likewise, realized an increase in families being registered, which evoked a need for the assistance of the Sisters of the Holy Ghost who traveled from Waterbury to teach over one hundred children religious education on Sunday mornings. Southbury appeared to become an overnight discovery once the highway was completed. The low tax rate and availability of desirable, affordable housing were two strong incentives for families to relocate into this now easily accessible community.
Heritage Village, an entirely new concept of the self-contained retirement community housing, was designed and under construction. It seemed as if the quaint and picturesque town of Southbury, with it's rolling hills and friendly atmosphere, was the perfect place to live. Upon completion of the 2,580 units, many more Catholics moved into the area and to Sacred Heart Church.
Another change occurred in 1967 when Father Kripas was transferred from Southbury to New Haven. The new pastor, Father John B. Shea arrived, charged with the enthusiasm and leadership needed to shepherd the flourishing Catholic community. Under Father Shea's direction and able capabilities, the parish debt, at one time considered to be a "staggering" amount, was eradicated and monies were set aside for the future needs of the parish community.
The nineteen sixties were years of even greater challenge and change for Southbury. With the completion of the Second Vatican Council, the Church throughout the world and even in the small but active town of Southbury, was invited to renew it's faith, participation and understanding of Christ's call to become a "priestly people". The years following the Vatican Council evoked a certain degree of fear and even some resentment as the faithful were challenged to adapt and accept what, for some, had become such a comfortable expression of faith.
In 1975, all parishes of the Archdiocese were mandated to conform to the recommendations made by the Council Fathers. Spiritual renewal also involved liturgical renewal. Renovation work to the interior areas of the church and especially the sanctuary had to be considered and undertaken. A new fund drive was inaugurated to facilitate the necessary changes and liturgical modifications.
During this time, the entire interior of the church was renovated. The walls, formerly painted cinder block, were covered with sheet rock; carpeting replaced the asbestos tile flooring and enriched the church setting and liturgical atmosphere and an entirely new sanctuary was created and adorned with new furnishings which added warmth, beauty and greater dignity to God's house. At this same time, the grounds surrounding the church were completely landscaped. Sacred Heart stood out to travelers from East and West as a "beautiful jewel" on the hill, a welcoming sight for all God's pilgrim people.
In 1976, the "new" church was once again completed. Finally, nothing would have to be built, remodeled or changed. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and feel grateful that all the hard work and effort was finally over—there would never be a need to expand again. 1976 was the year that disclosed through the findings of a parish census, that Sacred Heart had become a large family, in fact there were almost 1000 families. It had become physically impossible for Father Shea to minister to the spiritual needs of so many families. However, upon petitioning the Archbishop for an assistant, it was disclosed that no one was available for a permanent assignment. Some time later, Father Shea had the occasion to meet Father Paul Shamsher and discussed with him the possibility of his coming from New Jersey to Southbury in order to assist him at Sacred Heart. With the permission of the Archbishop for this arrangement to take place, Father Paul became the first assistant pastor in the parish.
In November, 1976, three men from the Archdiocese were ordained at Sacred Heart to the permanent diaconate. The ordained were: Vincent Cassidy, a member of the parish; Francis Bandeira of St. Ann Parish in Waterbury and Henry Lepkowski of St. Joseph Parish, Meriden. In December of the same year, Father Thomas Sievel, a transitional deacon assigned to the parish was ordained to the priesthood. As the parish continued to grow and as the concept of the permanent diaconate became more widely understood and accepted, more men responded to God's call to serve the church in this special ministry. In the years to follow, Sacred Heart witnessed the ordinations to the permanent diaconate of Philip Sharkey, the late Joseph Tomey, Anthony Dudzic and Joseph Lavoie. Richard Renker, who had moved from Ansonia to Southbury, transferred his deaconal contract to St. John of the Cross parish, Middlebury. William McGrath was incardinated from Long Island into the Archdiocese and assigned to Sacred Heart. John Weir, a retired permanent deacon from New York, likewise moved into the Parish and Heritage Village. Religious Education was now a much greater activity of the parish. Under the volunteer direction and organization of Theresa Schmidt, the first, formalized religious education program was begun. Through Terri's concern and dedication over a four-year period of time, religious instruction began to take root in a new and exciting way.
In July of 1977, the parish was saddened by the untimely death of their pastor, Father Shea. Father Jean Pelletier, who had taught at the Archdiocesan Seminary of St. Thomas in Bloomfield for many years, was named administrator of the parish and then later named pastor. Under Father Pelletier's direction, new emphasis was placed on spiritual development and religious education programs. Sister Nancy Vilano was hired as the first full-time Director of Religious Education and remained in that position for two years. Miss Lynn Connelly volunteered her services as a coordinator for Youth Ministry and Confirmation preparation. It was also during this time that a new concept of "family inter-generational religious education" called "FIRE" was introduced as a parish religious education alternative. This program was created and directed by Mrs. Cathy Chesto, a member of the parish. Sister Eileen Fucito, C.P., a former principal of St. Bridget School, Elm wood, became the second Director of Religious Education. Religious education offices were moved out of the one, small second floor office in the rectory to a rented building on Main Street South.
In June 1984, the parish was once again preparing for another change when Father Pelletier decided not to renew his pastorate for another six-year term. The parish was now to be exposed to an additional post Vatican Council concept, namely team ministry. A co-pastorate of two priests were assigned to the parish of Sacred Heart in a shared ministry. Father John Cooney and Father Mark Flynn became the first Co-Pastors at Sacred Heart Church on June 8, 1984. In October of 1984, the parish celebrated its One Hundredth Anniversary. It was a time to reflect and remember all that had happened over so many years and give thanks as it was almost unbelievable to think that from that first small wooden church and forty families, Sacred Heart was now a family which comprised almost one-third of the entire town's population and was made up of over fifteen hundred families. The task of growing closer as a community had become a visible and physical reality. The parish had grown closer in many ways.
As the parish had grown so had is needs and its many involvements. It became increasingly more obvious that the once considered "gigantic" church that would never be filled to capacity was inadequate. Likewise, the space available, for meetings, social gatherings and necessary activities was totally insufficient. Enlarged, expanded facilities were needed to be considered. The first change that occurred before the church could be expanded came with the relocation of the rectory from the small colonial-historical house at 340 Main Street North to a home generously willed to the parish by Mr. Clifford Cross, who had stipulated that the house and property could only be used as a rectory. The new 4.5 acre parcel of land and existing house were renovated and the clergy moved closer to the church from the previous three-mile distance.
More changes occurred as a full-time youth minister was hired to help meet the needs of the young adults of the Parish. Mrs. Cathy Reynolds joined Sister Eileen in the parish religious education department. 1985 witnessed tremendous changes in the growth and expansion of Southbury. With the announcement of International Business Machines intention to build a 1 million square foot facility in town, a real estate boom began. New buildings were rapidly changing the appearance of quaint, rural Southbury. The building which once housed the religious education offices was being demolished so that a larger office and retail complex could be built. The parish religious education staff would now be housed at the Union Square complex until the expansion project might be completed.
Sister Eileen was given a new position in the Archdiocese as the associate to the Vicar for religious. Once again, the parish found itself searching for a qualified Director of Religious Education to carry on this vital ministry.
Mrs. Julie Home, who had recently moved from Phoenix, Arizona, became the third Director of Religious Education. The number of children involved in the program increased to the extent that a fulltime religious education secretary was needed. The former part-time positions filled by Mrs. Rose Schutte and Mrs. Barbara Ford were now handled by Mrs. Ellen Cassidy. Home classes were expanded due to the limited space for classrooms in both Gainfield and Pomperaug Schools where religious education classes were held every Tuesday afternoon. Mrs. Dorothy Pekar became the new Youth Minister as Mrs. Reynolds accepted a position in her home parish in Naugatuck.
The community and the parish seemed to be growing in leaps and bounds. There were no options and only one solution that had to be faced head on: the parish facilities must be expanded.
In order to help the parish prepare for and feel a part of this decision to build and renovate, Father Richard Vosko, a liturgical design consultant, was hired in 1986 to assist the priests and parishioners in the planning process. Parish educational meetings were held at Pomperaug High School to enable total parish participation. Talks accompanied by slide presentations focused on the subjects of liturgical art and architecture in light of the changes inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the directives of the Bishops Committee of the United States.
Parishioners were given the opportunity to tour churches within the Archdiocese either recently built or renovated and an all-day workshop was conducted for parishioners to create their vision of what this church and parish center should incorporate. Likewise, the entire parish participated in completing a questionnaire for the purpose of compiling everyone's opinions. A Parish Building Committee had been initiated which consisted of some thirty-two members. Mrs. Ann Brennan and Mr. Glen Ackerman served as co-chairpersons of the Expansion Committee.
In accordance with Archdiocesan directives on fund raising, the O'Brien Company was retained as the professional fund-raising organization to assist in this undertaking. Under the leadership of the Architectural Selection Committee, the firm of King and Tuthill of Avon, Connecticut, were contracted to work in concert with the priests, design consultant and Expansion Committee following the formulated parish document to design the expanded facility. The Whiting-Turner Construction Company of Baltimore, Maryland was selected to act as general contractor.
Parish building was being discussed simultaneously on many levels. It was at this time that a Pastoral Advisory Committee was set in place to continue to assist the co-pastors in assessing the spiritual needs of the parish and ultimately, to work toward the development of the first Parish Council. In accordance with updated Archdiocesan directives, a Finance Committee was selected to advise, administer and plan the budgetary constraints of the parish corporation and oversee the expansion process. On November 8, 1986, plans, approved by Archbishop John Whealon, D.D., were presented to the parish. Fundraising began in October of 1987 to assure that the 1.9 million dollar construction costs could be achieved. Within two months, parishioners had pledged their support in the amount 1.6 million dollars.
Construction began on the new church in June of 1989 after architectural plans had been adapted to insure that the cost could be contained. At the very beginning of construction, Father John Cooney was transferred to St. Margaret's Parish in Madison.
As work on the new church proceeded, the parish patiently waited with mixed emotion about leaving the cozy church they had come to love in order to enter a new worship facility, which would be more than twice as large and be of a completely different design. Another change, always a little painful but at the same time an opportunity for growth.
On Christmas Eve, 1989, the parishioners celebrated the last Sunday of Advent in the Church that had become their spiritual home for over thirty years. At 4:00 p.m. on that same day, twelve hundred people gathered in the new Sacred Heart Church for Christmas mass. Not unlike their brothers and sisters, who walked into their new church on Christmas in 1884, their sense of joy and gratitude was felt not simply for the church and it's beautiful newness, but more profoundly for why the church exists—namely for Jesus to come into our lives.
In January of 1990, reconstruction and remolding began in the former church and hall. These areas were to become the parish social center, kitchen, religious education administrative offices and multi-purpose rooms. The estimated completion date of this project was determined to be March 31,1990.
On February 4, 1990, Father Andre Morin was assigned as assistant pastor. Father Morin, ordained in January of 1990, began his ministry with the people of God who were likewise beginning a new aspect of their faith lives.
On June 17, 1990, Archbishop John F. Whealon, D.D. dedicated the Sacred Heart Church and Parish Center at a Mass of Dedication held at 3:00 p.m. Priests of the Archdiocese who had temporarily been assigned to the Parish joined in the liturgy of dedication. A reception immediately followed in the Parish Social Hall dedicated to the memory of the parish's beloved deceased deacon, Joseph Tomey.
On July 6, 2003, Fr. Joseph Donnelly became our new pastor. Fr. Flynn, who had served the parish so well for 19 years was assigned to St. Patrick's Parish in Farmington, CT.
Sept. 11, 2005. Ground is broken for the expansion of the Parish Center. Work will include expanding the office space to include all offices now in the rectory moving to the Parish Center, expanding the worship space by adding about 140 seats, adding meeting and storage space, selling the current rectory and moving the pastor's residence to a smaller home.
Sept. 10, 2006. Work is completed on the expanded Parish Center, and Archbishop Henry Mansell visited to bless the new space.
December 14, 2006. The parish rectory, "Crosswinds", at 68 Georges Hill Rd. is sold to the Southbury Ambulance Association. Our pastor, Fr. Donnelly, had already moved to the new residence at 91 Old Waterbury Rd.