Soon after masses of Polish immigrants began settling in upstate New York in the 1880s, they built a big, beautiful church on the west side of Syracuse.

More than a century later, just in time for the 2000 jubilee, the work of their hands — Sacred Heart Church — was designated a basilica.

By definition, a basilica is a local church permanently reserved for the Holy Father. Thus, if the Holy Father were to come to Syracuse, he would come to Sacred Heart Basilica first because it is his church in Syracuse. Similarly, when the Holy Father celebrates his anniversary as Pope each Oct. 16, it is also celebrated at the Sacred Heart Basilica.

At Sacred Heart Basilica, there are five priests, three of whom are from Poland. They assist with Polish confessions and say Masses in Polish. One of the Polish priests is Father Stanley Dudkiewicz. He lived in Poland with the present Pope and remains his personal friend.

The basilica's physical grandeur is worthy of the magnificent spirit of its “owner.” An enormous sanctuary, it has two large altars — an altar of repose and an altar of sacrifice. To the east of the altar of repose is a side altar of the Blessed Mother; to the west, a side altar to St. Joseph.

Outside the main sanctuary are shrines to St. Adalbert, apostle of Prussia and martyr, and St. Stanislaus, bishop (of Cracow, Poland) and martyr.

A special chair for the Holy Father is located in front of the St. Joseph altar on the west side of the sanctuary. On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Holy Father's chair is placed in front of the altar of repose. Flowers are placed on it, and the Mass is conducted just as though the Holy Father was present. Each Feb. 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter is celebrated.

Solid as a Rock

The basilica is a large Gothic structure. The interior has recently been repainted. There is a simple, but rich, beauty to Sacred Heart Basilica, making it an inviting place to worship, pray to and contemplate God.

All of the stained-glass windows were imported from Germany and installed by the former Keck Studios of Syracuse. Huge stained-glass rose windows, imported from Munich, Germany, and valued at $1 million, depict the 15 mysteries of the rosary. Situated in front of the church and on the front east and west walls, they are considered irreplaceable.

On the walls are the coat of arms of Our Holy Father, of the late Bishop Joseph O'Keefe (who was responsible for helping Sacred Heart to become a basilica), and of the present bishop, Bishop James M. Moynihan. Sacred Heart also has its own coat of arms, as many basilicas do.

As you approach the basilica, your attention is immediately drawn to the twin spires, which rise 212 feet over Park Ave. Within, the interior of the basilica is built in the form of a 105-foot wide cross.

Upon entering the church, it is the marble throughout the sanctuary that catches your attention. Marble is everywhere, from the main aisle to the communion rail, from the lectern to the statues and altars.

The Blessed Mother's side altar is also made of marble, as is the solid marble baptismal font. The marble seems a physical reminder of the rock-solid dependability of God's love.

Prayerful Parish

Another repeating theme is, of course, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There's one life-size statue of the Sacred Heart in an alcove above the altar of repose and another in front of the St. Joseph altar. A third Sacred Heart statue is outside on the grounds and there's also a stained-glass window depicting Our Lord in this familiar image.

Though the Vatican II fathers made altar railings optional, and many churches chose to remove them, they remain intact at Sacred Heart Basilica. Many Catholics come here simply because they like to kneel while receiving Holy Communion. They find it a devotional act, and perhaps it gives one an opportunity to say a little prayer while preparing to receive Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The Polish people have great devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa. Accordingly, a stained-glass window of this icon is featured over the east side entrance. In addition, paintings of Our Lady of Czestochowa are mounted on the east wall of the Blessed Mother altar, on the east wall of the St. Aladabert altar, and on the back wall of the basilica.

The basilica, home to a very dynamic and active parish, boasts 60 altar boys and five choirs. The Paderweski Choir sings at the 9:30 a.m. High Mass each Sunday, the Polonaize Choir at the 11 a.m. Polish Mass on Sundays, the women's choir once each month at the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass. There's also a folk-guitar choir that sings and plays at the 5:00 p.m. Mass of Anticipation on Saturdays, and a children's choir that sings once a week at a daily Mass.

Perhaps the beautiful and varied music, along with the enthusiastic and involved parish community, is one reason not a few Catholics come from great distances — as far as 100 miles away — to attend Mass at Sacred Heart every Sunday.

Joseph Albino writes from Camillus, New York.