Drawn to Sacred Heart Church
Cullman, Alabama, parish has long legacy — hallmarked by distinctive stained glass.
As they rise high above Cullman, Alabama, twin steeples topped with gold crosses have made Sacred Heart of Jesus Church an unmistakable landmark for many decades. Only 15 miles from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, this church was founded by German immigrants in 1874, a year after they arrived.
The first church for the new arrivals was a windowless log cabin chapel. As the Catholic community grew rapidly, that same year the South and North Alabama Railroad Co. donated four lots for a rectory and school. When the first German-speaking resident pastor arrived in 1877, the church was named an official parish. A year later, a necessarily larger church, a white wood edifice, was completed in time for Christmas.
A major change came when German Benedictine priests from Pennsylvania arrived to serve Cullman’s German population. They became the pastors of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, a tradition which has continued for 135 years to the present. At the same time, 2 miles away, the Benedictines founded St. Bernard Abbey in 1891.
Then came the third church; the cornerstone of today’s edifice was laid on July 3, 1913. It was dedicated three years later. Built solidly of local sandstone, this beautiful church was designed in late German Romanesque Revival style. Over the years, it has seen both restoration and some additions — one major project was restoring the stained-glass windows in 2011 under the current pastor, Benedictine Father Patrick Egan.
These beautiful windows, 64 of them, are mostly all original and now recently joined by three new rose windows and windows in the vestibule. An elevated pulpit was another new addition.
The original windows have both a strong German and early Cullman connection. In 1914, they were being designed in Columbus, Ohio, by the Von Gerichter Ecclesiastic Studio, owned by Ludwig Von Gerichter and his brother Theodore. Ludwig had emigrated from his native Germany to join his brother and father already in the U.S.; in 1891, he settled in Cullman and founded the Birmingham Art Glass Co. Two years later, the brothers moved the company to Columbus under its new name. At the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 they were awarded four gold medals for their craftsmanship.
Since the brothers also opened a studio in Munich, Germany, 24 of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church windows were made there. But World War I delayed their shipment to the church. They were buried to protect them, and then, when the war ended, they were shipped to Alabama. Finally, in 1920, with the rest of the windows completed, they were installed in the new church.
Because many of the windows honor saints, the parishioners and visitors are surrounded by the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul speaks of in Hebrews. From the first steps into the nave, the saintly inspiration becomes quickly apparent to visitors looking directly to the sanctuary. The semicircular apse is unique, as its seven open archways defined with Corinthian capped columns open to the back wall with its windows. Rising above each arch, seven windows in the high clerestory of the apse begin with the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the center, directly in line with the tabernacle and altar below. To the sides, colorful windows with similar elaborately decorated stained-glass borders present Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Boniface (who was a Benedictine and patron saint of Germany), Bernard of Clairvaux, Scholastica (who founded the Benedictine nuns) and Gertrude, a German Benedictine who had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart from her mystical experiences.
In the sanctuary, besides its marble details, the ornate white reredos, an elaborate Romanesque design using repeating arches on its different levels, and high altar of wood were refinished in the 1990s to resemble marble. They are adorned with gold-leaf highlighting. A statue of the Sacred Heart stands atop the reredos.
Closest to the sanctuary, the slightly indented walls suggest a cruciform style and present the Four Evangelists on the north side of the nave. St. John is shown standing, holding a book and appearing to be writing while looking up to ponder sacred mysteries and listen to the Holy Spirit pictured as the traditional dove above his head. St. Matthew also appears ready to commit the Gospel to paper. Above this statue, an angel is depicted with folded hands and eyes to heaven. St. Luke appears to hold a closed book while, above, there is a rendition of an ox with outspread wings. St. Mark, in statue form, with a gentle celestial expression reflecting his thoughts of heavenly things, holds open his book with one hand and with the other points to the text. Above him is his symbol: a winged lion.
The stained-glass windows on the walls opposite the Evangelists honor four of the first declared doctors of the Church — Ambrose, Pope Gregory the Great, shown with a dove representing the Holy Spirit, Augustine and Jerome, portrayed gesturing to an open Bible.
The rose window above these Gospels writers is called the Eucharistic Chalice. The highly decorated window in various beautiful shades of blue with gold rays surrounds the central figure of a chalice and host. Twelve identical spheres ringed in red contain crosses encircled with beads like those of rosaries. The rose window opposite this one symbolizes Christ the King with its central image of a cross and crown. In deeper shades of blue and added red, it repeats with the same patterns and deeper shades of the same colors, as does the Holy Spirit rose window above the choir loft. Originally they had plain leaded glass. Then, around 1955, temporary windows were installed that included the circles of primary colors. In 2013 the church was able to complete the windows very close to the ones in the original plans. The other major new windows in the vestibule “bring” the Holy Family together — the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Chaste and Just Heart of St. Joseph, with each depicted as gesturing to the heart. “The whole parish really pitched in to get these windows and restore all the others as well,” said church archivist Mary Hovater.
All the original windows are unmistakable masterpieces of German designs so sought after for decades. They include the first windows people see when entering the nave. Paired in sets of two, these arched windows highlight events from the New Testament. Three smaller windows above each are highly decorative and strongly symbolic of the scene below, such as the elaborate Nativity.
Another pair pictures the Child Jesus astonishing those in the Temple, while renderings of his mother and father, who just arrived, “watch” from the background. Another presents the Holy Family in a room much in Renaissance style. Uniquely, it combines two incidents by including the Annunciation, as Jesus is shown reading a book and Joseph is depicted standing behind him, gesturing toward his foster son with one hand and apparently imparting a blessing with the other. The Wedding Feast at Cana is both colorfully attractive and absorbing. Next is the Agony in the Garden. The glorious Resurrection follows. Lighted arches above columns that line the side aisles frame each scene.
To either side of the sanctuary are the traditional shrine altars to our Blessed Mother — the statue depicts Our Lady of Lourdes — and St. Joseph. Countless parishioners through the decades have prayed before these beautiful images in their arched shrines. Before them, sections of original marble Communion rails continue to accent the sanctuary.
Near the Blessed Mother’s altar, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe speaks of the devotion to her in this title, especially by the Hispanic parishioners. Near the side shrine altar of St. Joseph, a large Divine Mercy image tells of the people’s devotion to Jesus in this title, as the Divine Mercy Chaplet is prayed daily in the church. And there is almost 24/7 Eucharistic adoration.
Devotions carry on to various saints who are represented throughout the church. Tall images of St. Benedict and St. Anthony of Padua holding the Child Jesus stand close to the shrines of Our Lady and St. Joseph. The Infant of Prague is also honored. Jesus also appears to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, with the message of his Sacred Heart.
In a garden outside, the statue depicting Our Lady cradling a very young Child Jesus holding a globe is named Our Lady of Cullman, as the flocks implores Mary to looks out over Cullman and pray for the town.
In the nave, and original to the church, the 2.5-foot-tall Stations of the Cross with their fully formed polychromed and detailed figures are plaster masterpieces from Italy.
Proof that Sacred Heart of Jesus Church remains vibrant comes in the way parishioners — and even the community — pitched in when the century-old Austin pipe organ the church bought from an Atlanta church in 1959 succumbed to an electrical fire on Palm Sunday in 2022. Because it had to be replaced, the parish started a campaign to raise the necessary $600,000 for a new organ and for updating the choir loft.
There were sponsored parties and raffles. At the parish school — built in the same style as the church in the 1940s — the classes competed to bring in the most change. A parishioner matched the funds for a total of approximately $5,000. The parish’s large Hispanic community sponsored fundraisers such as dinners and food sales. The schoolteacher Sisters of the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary handmade rosaries, with the funds contributing to the good cause. Even local businesses and politicians have lent their support. $1.1 million has been collected so far, allowing much more updates than were originally envisioned. The new Austin organ is scheduled to be installed and in use for this coming December.
This church has yet another uncommon distinction: Longtime parishioner Barbara Gootee Ragsdale explained that several people who have purposely moved to the area to be close to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, home to Mother Angelica’s Poor Clares, also have become members of this parish. Occasionally, pilgrims and visitors to the shrine and to the Ave Maria Grotto by the abbey also visit this church, too — all drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.