Parish History

In the beginning . . .

Sacred Heart was the first Catholic parish in Wethersfield dating back to the late 1800s.  

Even before its founding, however, tradition has it that the first Mass in Connecticut was offered in Wethersfield in 1781 for French troops encamped in town during their march across the state during the final campaign of the Revolutionary War.

A century later, there were increasing numbers of Catholics in Wethersfield. Initially, priests from St. Patrick's and then St. Peter's in Hartford would travel to the mission church in Wethersfield to celebrate Mass in such varied locations as the home of John Connery (the "Chester House") on Broad Street, Town Hall (later Academy Hall) on Main Street, the Grand Army Hall, formerly at the corner of Main and Church Streets, and the home of John Mehegan on Spring Street.

In 1880, construction of the first Sacred Heart Church began on the north side of Garden Street between Main Street and Broad Street on a lot purchased a few years earlier. (The building at 26 Garden Street is now a private residence.) The church was then a mission church of St. Mary's in East Hartford. It was dedicated on May 29, 1881, as a mission church of St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Hartford. On September 1, 1897, Bishop Michael A. Tierney made Sacred Heart an independent parish with Fr. John T. Lynch as its first pastor. Fr. Lynch served until 1900 when he was succeeded by Fr. Jeremiah Duggan. 

Most Sacred Heart parishioners at that time were Irish or the descendants of Irish immigrants. Many of the early pastors were also Irish reflecting the work of Bishop Reilly of Hartford in recruiting priests from Ireland. 


Early Twentieth
 Century:  Growth, setbacks, and rebound

Sacred Heart continued to grow and, in 1923, the parish had outgrown its Garden Street church. Under the leadership of then-pastor Fr. Michael Barry, the parish purchased a large plot of land formerly owned by the late William Meggat that ran from Hartford Avenue back to State Street. The property included the two-and-a-half story Meggat Seed Company warehouse on the corner of what is now Meggat Park and Hartford Avenue, as well as the adjacent 15-room Meggat family residence on Hartford Avenue. The first floor of the warehouse was extensively remodeled into a spacious church and the second floor into a social hall. The former residence became the rectory. This second Sacred Heart Church was blessed on Easter Sunday, April 20, 1924. 

In August 1938, only 14 years later, a disastrous fire struck Sacred Heart Church causing extensive damage. Pastor George Grady was forced to move the congregation back to the original Garden Street venue which was still being used for catechism classes. After the fire, in response to the new housing being constructed in the southern and western portions of town, plans were prepared for a new church to be constructed on the newly-built Silas Deane Highway. However, by the time construction was completed in 1939, it was decided to dedicate the new church as the separate new parish of Corpus Christi. Consequently, the fire-damaged Sacred Heart Church was repaired, renovated, and rededicated on April 4, 1943.


Post-war years:  The Heart beats strong

During the 1940s and 1950s, Sacred Heart parish consisted of about 500 families and thrived under Pastors Fr. Frederick Clark and Fr. James J. Gannon. Fr. Gannon, nicknamed “Whooper,” was an energetic and colorful pastor from 1948 to his sudden death in 1955. In addition to the Guild of St. Theresa, established in the 1920s, and the Men’s Club, active parish organizations included the Altar Society, choir, CYO, and St. Ann’s Mothers Circle. A Minstrel Show, presented by the Holy Name Society of Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi, was a showcase for actors, singers, comedians, and dancers in the two parishes. 
 
From this vibrant community came two vocations to religious life both to the Sisters of St. Joseph  of Chambéry based in West Hartford. Sister Mary Bernard, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Shanley, entered the order in 1958. A few years later her parents dedicated the Nativity window in the new church in her honor. Sister Maria Daniel, daughter of Grace and Daniel Toce, entered in 1959.  Both Sisters continue their vowed life of ministry and prayer today. In fact, Sister Mary Bernard has recently reconnected with Sacred Heart Parish and assists with the preparation of candidates in our Confirmation Class.

1960s - 1990s:  A new church, a renewed church
 

While the spirit of the parish was strong, its physical plant was not. By the late 1950s, both the exterior and interior of the former seed-warehouse-now-rebuilt-post-fire-church had fallen into poor condition. Plans to again repair the church eventually morphed into plans to build a new church. A capital fund drive was undertaken by the men of the parish under the direction of Raymond McEnerny Associates. The fundraising goal of $100,000 was actually exceeded with a healthy surplus. Groundbreaking took place in September 1962. On June 29, 1963, Archbishop Henry O’Brien along with Pastor Fr. John O’Neil dedicated the new (third) Sacred Heart Church. The church bell, dedicated in 1915 at the original Garden Street church, was installed in the new church tower. The inscription on the bell reads DEUM VIRUMQUE CANO (“I sing of God and Man”). 

In the late 1960s, the church sanctuary was reconfigured consistent with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The altar was moved from the top of the steps at the foot of the large crucifix, to face the congregation at the front of the sanctuary and the altar railing at the front of the sanctuary was removed. 

Also following the Council, the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s saw increased participation by parishioners in the life of the parish. In 1966, under Monsignor Robert W. Doyle, a Parish Council was formed to advise and assist the pastor regarding parish affairs. Fr. John T. Desmond, pastor from 1976 to 1987, used his love of music to involve the people of the parish. In the 1980s, the parish embraced the Renew program that heightened the spiritual life of the parish. Parishioners regularly gathered to cook meals in the church kitchen, and others would bring the food to the House of Bread in Hartford to serve it. Fr. John Curry Gay (1987-1995) was a learned man who shared his love and knowledge of Scripture with parishioners in adult Scripture study classes, and who also regularly washed the dishes after a parish-sponsored dinner at St. Elizabeth House homeless shelter in Hartford.
 
In the 1980s and '90s, the parish was blessed with several more vocations to a life dedicated to God -- to the priesthood, consecrated religious life, and the diaconate. Dennis Willey, son of Andre and Jean Willey, and along with his brothers a long-time altar boy at Sacred Heart, was ordained as a priest. He now serves as pastor of another Sacred Heart parish in Charleston, South Carolina as well as of 
Christ the Divine Teacher Parish at The Citadel. Parishioner Beth Shuman entered the Order of St. Benedict of the Strict Observance and took the name Sister Ozane to live a life of work and prayer within the cloistered, farm-based Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Following several years of formation, long-time parishioners Tom Murray and Seth English were both ordained permanent deacon, and served the parish for many years until Tom's retirement in the late 1990s and Seth's reassignment to Corpus Christi several years later.

1995 - 2010:  Yoking, adapting, enduring

In 1995, Fr. Gay was transferred from the parish and the Archdiocese, responding to a severe shortage of priests, decided to “yoke” Sacred Heart with Corpus Christi. The parishes share pastors but each remains a free-standing, separate parish. The first pastors of the “yoke” era were Frs. Thomas B. Campion and David W. Lonergan, with assistance from retired-in-residence Fr. Bradford Colton as well as Deacon Seth English. Though small, our parish has proved to be enduring. A 1990s “baby boomlet” led to a well-attended CCD program, CYO basketball programs for both girls and boys, pre-Halloween pumpkin carving parties, and a new tradition of periodic “Family Masses” in which children and young people of the parish served as lectors, as altar servers, and in the choir. 

Since 2000, the parish has been honored to host the Korean Catholic Community of Connecticut and share our parish facilities with them. Members of the KCCC reside across Connecticut and gather each Sunday at Sacred Heart for a Korean-language Mass, followed by CCD classes, a traditional Korean meal, and ping pong in the Church Hall. Their pastor, most recently Fr. Chul Nicholas Lee who arrived in February 2013, comes from the Archdiocese of Seoul and is temporarily assigned to the Archdiocese of Hartford.

2010 - present:  Transitions and new beginnings

The period of 2010-12 was another time of great transition and growth for Sacred Heart. Fr. Lonergan retired in 2010 after 49 years of active ministry as a priest including fifteen years of service as co-pastor of Sacred Heart. He was succeeded by Fr. Stanley Staron. Our deacon Cornelius "Connie" O'Connell, who had served at Sacred Heart with quiet strength for several years, withdrew due to failing health and died in 2010. In early 2011, Deacon Jim Toner, who had arrived at the parish from Alabama in 2009, decided to return to the Southeast. In August 2011, the parish welcomed Deacon Barry Skipp, who joined us from Sacred Heart parish in Bloomfield. In December 2011, Fr. Campion retired after 59 years of priestly ministry and pastoral leadership. In January 2012, the parish said goodbye to Fr. Staron who was reassigned to lead Immaculate Conception parish in Southington. 

In this time of change, and with retirements of the parish secretary and sexton as well, numerous parishioner volunteers took on many of the tasks of keeping the parish running, and more. To help define the future of Sacred Heart more clearly, parishioners participated in a parish survey and a “parish conversation” that provided a useful forum for addressing questions, soliciting input, and reaffirming the strong commitment of parishioners to the parish. As the Archdiocese began the process to identify a new pastor, the Parish Council provided input to the Archdiocese on issues facing the parish, and its goals, plans, and hopes for the future. 

In January 2012, the parish was cheered by the appointment of Fr. Shawn Daly as the new pastor of Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi parishes; a short while later, the parish welcomed Fr. Daniel Wojtun as Parochial Vicar. With the arrival of Fr. Shawn and Fr. Daniel, Deacon Barry's presence, and the continued support from Fr. Joseph Vujs, it became clear that although the parish’s challenges were great, our blessings were far greater. And so the parish enters a new era of service to the Lord – the little parish with the big heart.