No Twister Could Topple Faith This Tough
A sacramental citadel welcomes wayfarers traveling through the Bible Belt stronghold of northern Texas. In the major junction city of Wichita Falls (pop.100,000) stands historic Sacred Heart Parish, a longstanding symbol of resilience, restoration and respite.
No doubt, Wichita Falls’s precarious location in Tornado Alley’s lower end is key to its locally popular nickname, “The City That Faith Built.” The slogan signifies the perseverance of early, largely Anglo, settlers who came to farm and ranch — not to mention those who followed, including entrepreneurs who benefited from a major oil boom between the two world wars and from the industrial successes that came afterward. World Wars I and II brought residents through an Army aviation training facility, which exists now as Sheppard Air Force Base.
Earlier, in 1882, the Fort Worth & Denver train route brought a Catholic contingent of German, Irish, Czech and Polish settlers into the Protestant-based town.
St. Patrick Catholic Church was established here in 1891, becoming a mission of Henrietta for the Diocese of Dallas. Alas, a tornado destroyed the building in 1894 and the replacement was moved to its present block in 1906. Across the street was the Academy of Mary Immaculate, a stately 1905 fortress run by the stalwart Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who provided schooling for day students and boarders.
By no later than 1914 the church was re-named Sacred Heart, with local legend indicating this was a neutral name to keep Catholic-Protestant tensions at bay.
Since its earliest years, the Sacred Heart community has endured tumultuous weather, the Great Depression, major economic busts, wars and massive cultural changes. Yet one of the biggest challenges it faced came when Wichita Falls was declared a national disaster area on April 10, 1979. On this date, an F-4 tornado hit. Much of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. Deaths, injuries and property destructions came to thousands of citizens.
Msgr. Charles King helped launch the Sacred Heart-based Tornado Catholic Disaster Relief Fund, a driving recovery force. This dynamic native son also made sure his flock was pro-active in the ecumenical Interfaith Disaster Services (later Interfaith Ministries, Inc., with his facilitation).
The current pastor, Father Ivor Koch, has been at his post for two decades. Drawing from significant business acumen, which he gained through involvement in his Iowa family’s floral business, he oversaw a five-year, $5 million renovation and expansion of the parish, 1926 rectory, 1949 hall and grounds. The project stared in 1995. Church seating went from 450 to 800. On June 12, 1999, Bishop Joseph Delaney of Fort Worth led the dedication.
Great pains were taken to retain the architecture of the original Romanesque design.
The peaceful Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a “must-see” addition. (Chapel hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; there’s a separate entrance, though the chapel is attached.) Modernizations included central air conditioning and heating, efficient lighting, restroom additions, hall-kitchen updating and easy accessibility to all facilities. In other words, it’s a classic-style church with all the comforts of a modern home.
Sacred Heart’s visual jewels include English stained-glass windows lining both walls of the main church and a unique, three-section Crucifixion oil-on-canvas mural high over the altar. The rose window, with a centered Sacred Heart emblem, filters light into the choir loft, where a massive pipe organ is stationed.
Classic ceilings, walls, pillars and miscellaneous sacred fixtures serve as distinctly Catholic calls to prayer and contemplation. Not to be missed is the remarkable sanctuary light, of brass and red glass, which has been hanging since the church’s first dedication. It was donated by a Russian immigrant grateful to God for having him miss his boarding the Titanic on its fateful voyage in April 1912.
Outside is a Marian grotto seating area. A sentimental touch accentuates the church entrance: donated memorial bricks, a concrete symbol of the strength of the body of Christ through the togetherness of its members.
One notable guest last summer was Bishop Kevin Vann. He visited shortly after his July 13 ordination as the third bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth. He reflected: “In seeing Sacred Heart for the first time, I find it to be a church of much great beauty and devotion. It is a wonderful place to pray and to celebrate Mass.”
The Diocese of Fort Worth, incidentally, was created as recently as 1969; it’s part of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
For its part, Sacred Heart has become the local Catholic community’s “mother church,” growing from a dozen committed families in 1891 to 1,600 families today. Its growth has fostered development of a second major parish, Our Lady Queen of Peace, along with Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Our Lady of the Assumption [Vietnamese] Parish and some area missions.
I always have called Sacred Heart my “home parish” by the fact I received my first sacraments here, attended parochial schooling all the way through high school and was involved, as family members for three generations before me, in countless parish activities. I moved away in 1978, never forgetting its coziness. This past May 1, I returned to Wichita Falls.
At my beloved Sacred Heart the second time around, I have found a generous community of dedicated individuals on staff and in the pews who esteem their heritage, yet stand ready to serve humanity’s needs in the early 21st century.
There is a definite blend of fresh blood regenerating the church in collaboration with older stock. Like the Sacred Heart of Jesus himself, this place is ever ancient, ever new.
Mary E. Manley writes from
Wichita Falls, Texas.
Planning Your Visit
For a schedule of Masses, sacraments and prayer activities, call (940) 723-5288 or visit sacredheartwf.org on the Internet.
Sacred Heart Parish is located at 1501 Ninth St., right off Central Expressway. For driving directions and other travel information, call (940) 723-5288 or visit sacredheartwf.org on the Internet.
- January 22-28, 2006