The history of Sacred Heart Church is the story of its people. It is the story of people who for over one hundred and thirty-four years have said, “WE BELIEVE.” The story of a church is not its buildings; it is the people who built them, and why they did it. The people of Sacred Heart Church are the people of the City of Detroit, The histories must be told together.
In the Nineteenth Century, Detroit was a multi-ethnic community. Although nationalities strove to become part of the American way of life, each one clung to its own culture in social and religious life. In 1875, a group of German-American Catholics established Sacred Heart Church, at Grove Street (now Eliot) and Prospect (now Rivard).
It was not only because other parishes did not welcome Black Catholics into their prejudiced congregations, but mostly because we wished to expressed our cultural experiences in religious life that we organized our own parish in 1911. A classroom at St. Mary’s School served as a chapel for Black Catholics in the city. In 1914, our growing congregation purchased a small Episcopal Church at Beaubien and Eliot and named it St. Peter Claver.
Our Church was a place of worship, along with the school activities. Here we came together to praise God and leave with the spirit to serve one another in our community. Our dances, picnics, club meeting, choir practices and many social involvements not only made us personally concerned for each other, but they have expression to our concerns for social improvement, political participation and spiritual depth.
Black Catholics were proud of the Church and school. A dwindling German population in the area made it possible for the Archdiocese of Detroit to relocate St. Peter Claver at Sacred Heart Church. On September 1, 1938, the parishioners marched in procession up Eliot across Hastings to Rivard and became Sacred Heart Parish. The elementary and high school staffed by the Felician Sisters and the Church ministered by the Holy Ghost priests flourished in this new location.
Education of the youth was the immediate concern. Every civilization and culture is measured In part. by the ‘fulfillment of the dreams that It has for its young. To everyone’s satisfaction, the first high school class began in September, 1941. After many painful but determined steps by parents, faculty, and students, the first Sacred Heart High School Graduates received their diplomas In June 1945.
That warm June day was commencement for forty-five graduates and a new beginning of deeper faith for all of us of Sacred Heart Church. Our reputation for high academic standards was firmly respected in the City.
In 1949, the Federal Housing Act, under the guise of “providing a decent home for every American” began destruction of our neighborhoods. Our houses were demolished, our stores removed, and lively old Hastings Street was torn out. Urban Renewal meant our removal. Some moved away; some joined other parishes. Of necessity, the school had to be closed. June 1957, saw the closing of the high school, followed eight years by the closing of the elementary grades. Detroit was struggling, aging, and rebuilding. In spite of this we kept the faith. Our members decreased, but we always kept a strong core of members.
Growing awareness in the Sixties made possible by the Civil Rights Movement for Liberation, the Second Vatican Council led us to sing once more of our glorious struggles and achievements of a people always on the move. Sacred Heart parish family engaged in the struggle to renew life in Detroit.
Throughout the country, the Churches in the inner cities have become the cutting-edge for progress in worship, community involvement, social action and education. These congregations have been the forerunners in developing a warm theology that says God cares about and frees His people.
One hundred and thirty-five years has brought about many changes, yet we are still standing on faith, as they Lord continues to make away. We have been blessed with the pastorate of Fr. Norman P. Thomas, who for over 40 years has led the congregation in times of struggle and in times of triumph. Under his leadership Sacred Heart’s congregation and ministries have grown, to become the largest black Catholic congregation in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
WE HAVE COME THIS FAR BY FAITH. We will continue to try to live by this faith because we know where we came from and we know where we are going. Sometimes the vision gets blurred, the dreams fall flat, and we don’t always know how to get there . . . but we are on our way!!!