There aren’t many parishioners these days who can remember watching their church being built, much less say they had a hand in the construction. Many members of Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn, however, count themselves among those lucky few.
Parishioners began a yearlong celebration of the parish’s 50th anniversary with a Sept. 30 dinner dance, followed by a Mass with Bishop Matthew H. Clark the next day. More than 130 people of all ages attended the dance, and “everyone was in a fantastic, celebratory mood,” said Sister Chris Treichel, OSF, the parish’s pastoral administrator.
The parish was founded in the fall of 1956, when Bishop James E. Kearney appointed Father Raymond Wahl pastor of the new parish, which did not yet have a church building, said longtime parishioner Beverly Simon.
“In September a letter was sent to Father Wahl at the St. Alphonsus rectory (in Auburn), where he was an assistant. It appointed him pastor of a parish to be founded on Melrose Road,” said Simon, who has spent months researching the parish’s history. “He drove up and found what was a 15-acre cow pasture.”
Even though Auburn already had five Roman Catholic parishes, diocesan officials decided a new one was necessary because the Town of Owasco, which borders Auburn, was experiencing a large growth in population, Simon said. Many of Sacred Heart’s first parishioners — including Mike and Marie Abraham — left the other Auburn parishes to become founding members of Sacred Heart. The Abrahams had formerly belonged to Auburn’s St. Mary Parish.
“We were living in Owasco, and (Sacred Heart) was more convenient,” Mike Abraham said.
After Father Wahl and parish volunteers conducted a fund drive, ground was broken for the new parish in April 1957. Abraham and many of the other men of the new parish then spent many evenings helping construct the parish’s first building, which was used as both a school and a church for several years.
“The men of the parish would work all day at their regular jobs, then after work go up (to the construction site), pour cement, paint, do framework,” Simon said. “The people of the parish were unbelievable. I find that very interesting, how they gave so much of themselves.”
The men just basically tried to help out in whatever ways they could, Abraham recalled when asked what he did during the construction.
“What didn’t I do?” he asked rhetorically. “It was a little of everything. We put the floors down, we did everything.”
While the men were constructing the church, the women were busy building up a sense of parish community and raising funds for Sacred Heart through bake sales and card parties, Simon said.
The first building was soon completed, and Sacred Heart School opened in 1957. During the next few years the parish also constructed a separate church building, as well as a rectory and a convent.
“I think that’s why they were so ready to celebrate,” Sister Treichel told the Catholic Courier after the dinner dance. “I’ve been in lots of different parishes, (but) I’ve never heard of the people actually investing their time, talent and treasure in the building of the church.”
“They started right from a barren field and built a church and a parish,” said John Clark, who has belonged to the parish for 43 years. “It made everyone a lot closer, and we’re still close. You don’t know 100 percent of the people that go there, but you probably know 85 or 90 percent of the parish.”
The parish community has always been very tight-knit, Abraham agreed.
“A lot of us started it, and we had a lot to do with building it. I think that makes you closer,” he said.
Founding parishioners worked together to establish the parish, and even continued to work together once the construction was done, this time focusing their efforts on those in need, Sister Treichel said. Outreach is an integral part of the parish, which tithes and twice a year donates a portion of its collection proceeds to local, national and international charities.
The parish is very interested in social justice, and it has participated in Heifer Project International and has formed an ongoing relationship with people in the Dominican Republic community of Monte Plata. The parish also has an active youth group and book club, whose members discuss books about spiritual and social-justice issues.
Sacred Heart’s anniversary committee has planned a long list of special events that will take place during the anniversary year, said Maxine Alberici, who chairs the committee with her husband, Gino. Several well-known sports figures will speak at the parish in February, an event that recalls the popular Sports Night dinners the parish held for many years. Sacred Heart also was well-known for its fish fries during Lent, so the parish will hold an anniversary fish fry in March.
“It’s a one-time thing as a celebration of some of the stuff that we did in the past 50 years,” Alberici said.
The parish will continue to hold its normal annual events, but they’ll be special this year because they will reflect the anniversary theme, she added. This year, for example, the parish’s November Mass of remembrance for deceased loved ones will include a photo display of founding parishioners who’ve passed away.
“To use (popular television chef) Emeril’s expression, we’re going to kick everything that we always do up a notch,” she said.