100 Years of Memories
Celebrating Sacred Heart Church
By Brenda Nettles Riojas
The Valley Catholic
BROWNSVILLE – Agnes Browne, 99, was born a year after Sacred Heart Church was built in 1913 on the corner of 6th and East Elizabeth Streets in Brownsville. As the oldest parishioner attending the Centennial Celebration for the historic church on April 13, she said it brought back memories of her grandmother, Agnes A. Browne.
Her grandmother helped raise money for the construction of the church and contributed significantly to completing the interior. “It brings my grandmother back to life,” Browne said. “I think how proud my grandmother would be to see how beautiful it is and that it is continuing on.”
Serena Putegnat, who served on the Centennial Committee, said Browne’s family “was instrumental in starting the church.”
The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores, who celebrated the Centennial Mass for Sacred Heart Catholic Church on April 13, thanked the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for their service over the years. He spoke about the beauty of the church.
“It is one of the most beautiful temples in the diocese,” he said. “The windows, floor plan, the beauty of the sanctuary, it is really a living sign of the beauty which God uses…a beauty which is manifested most perfectly in Christ Jesus himself.”
Immaculate Conception Church, now the cathedral of the Diocese of Brownsville, was built in 1859 and served the entire city for more than 50 years.
In 1905, the priests recognized the need for a new church to serve the English-speaking community. Construction started on April 16, 1912. The exterior was completed in January 1913 and the church dedicated on April 29, 1913. The cost at that point totaled $35,000.
The parish served 50 families when it opened, and the territory reached halfway to San Benito. The first pastor for the church, Father J.B. Lavoie, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, lived in the tower of the new church.
Oblate Priest Father Jean Baptiste Frigon, who cared for the parish for 16 years from November 1913 until his death in 1930, oversaw the completion of the interior of the church.
Some of the earliest settlers of Brownsville helped raise funds for the construction and donated some of the interior fixtures. These include the stained glass windows, which were installed in 1918 and the altars.
Browne, who lived with her grandmother until she was 13 years old, said the stained glass windows are one of her favorite features of the church. Some of the windows were donated by her family in 1918.
Sacred Heart Church, which was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 2001, at one time was offered up for sale and possible demolition in the 1970s after it went unused and began to deteriorate.
The church served as a parish until 1967 when Mary, Mother of the Church was built and parish boundaries were redrawn. Sacred Church became a filial chapel of Immaculate Conception Cathedral. “The church endured 13 years of gradual deterioration,” according to the historical overview prepared for the Centennial Celebration.
Brownsville residents of different religious denominations helped save the church and contributed to the restoration in 1979. Restoration efforts continue. A year before the Centennial Celebration, Brownsville families rallied together once again to help retain the original beauty of the church.
Pablo Noriega, a restoration artist from Brownsville, worked for a year to restore the side altar panels and recreate the altar towers that had been destroyed during Hurricane Beulah in 1967.
He also built a new altar to match the altar of repose. The new altar, which is a duplicate of the original main altar, can be moved to accommodate for the monthly Latin Masses offered at the church.
The project helped him discover how rewarding his work is in the service of the Lord. “I’m doing what I love the most, earning a living, and I’m doing it for the service of the Lord,” he said.
“You start to realize that God’s presence is in the work, and that he sent me to do this,” he added.
Bishop Flores, in his homily, talked about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the life-giving force of the Eucharist. He also said, “Christ Jesus is the constructor of the Church. Christ Jesus is the one who makes it fruitful, who gives it life.”
“Here, 100 years ago, there was a courage to begin,” he said, “It started with a pastoral need.” “The foundation stone was laid, the community was built, the Gospel was taught, children were baptized, confirmed, given first communion, couples were married, faithful were given a Christian burial, the life of the Church developed.
“In the course of it all this, the Church has been a witness to the enduring presence in the hope that we have that the work of the Church is in God’s hand; it is not ours to control, but it is ours, in a certain sense, to lend a shoulder to keep it moving,” Bishop Flores added.
The bishop said “the Church is always beginning.” “Even after 100 years we could say, with every new baptized child, with every new married coupled, with every newly received member of the Church, the Church begins; life continues to flow from the altar.”
“We want to remember in a particular way during this Mass all the faithful departed who in any way contributed to the building up of this Church, who offered their instrumentality for a work that belongs to Christ.”
Oblate Father Michael J. Amesse, pastor of Immaculate Conception Cathedral, said the Centennial Celebration marked a milestone for the Catholic Church in Brownsville.
Father Amesse said he was pleased with how many of the families with ties to the church participated in the celebration. He added he is happy as well to see a lot of younger families coming to Sacred Heart Church on Sundays. He attributed the new interest to the beauty of the church.
Historical photos lined the walls of the Alonso Building, the reception site where Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. presented Senate Resolution No. 594 extending “best wishes for a joyous celebration of the 100th anniversary of Sacred Heart Church.”
During the anniversary reception, Bob Torres, a life-long parishioner of Sacred Heart Church and now a parishioner of the Cathedral, shared his early memories. He remembered receiving his First Communion there and singing in the choir. He also was one of the first lectors at the church after Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II, only the clergy proclaimed the Scripture.
The Centennial Committee extends an invitation to the Rio Grande Valley community to visit the Sacred Heart Church during the anniversary year. Sunday Masses are scheduled at 11:30 a.m. and a Latin Mass is offered once a month.
(Originally published in the May 2013 issue of The Valley Catholic newspaper.)