By TARA CONNOLLY Staff writer
A parish in Berks County will mark a century of keeping the faith Sunday, Oct. 29 and call to mind the founding faithful and their perseverance in accepting change without forsaking Catholicism.
Sacred Heart, West Reading will celebrate its 100th Jubilee Anniversary Mass at 3 p.m. with Bishop of Allentown Alfred Schlert as the main celebrant.
Msgr. Joseph DeSantis, pastor, who will concelebrate the Mass, said although the parish was established in 1917 to serve the needs of primarily faithful of German descent, the make-up of the parish today is diversified.
“Beginning as a parish for German-speaking and some Italian, blue-collar workers, the make-up of our parishioners today reads like the list of those gathered on that first Pentecost,” he said.
“We have parishioners from Western European ancestry and there are Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, Philippine, Vietnamese, Chinese, African American and Caribbean. They all bring with them their unique cultural and spiritual heritage that enriches and strengthens the faith of all parish members.”
Although many of the communities in Berks County were mostly rural farmlands, by the beginning of the 20th century Reading experienced industrial expansion due to its proximity to the anthracite coal regions of Schuylkill County to the north and the product markets of Philadelphia to the southeast.
In 1917 Bishop Edmond Prendergast of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (1911-18) acting on the recommendation of Msgr. George Bornemann, pastor St. Paul, Reading, erected Sacred Heart to provide for the spiritual needs of Catholics living west of the Schuylkill River.
Msgr. Bornemann purchased a plot of land at the southwest corner of Eighth and Hill avenues in Wyomissing, and his nephew, Father Charles Bornemann was named the founding pastor of the new parish of 180 people.
Father Bornemann celebrated the first Mass for the parish on July 8, 1917 in the Wyomissing Town Hall. The site served as a place for worship until the two-storied, brick, combination church-school was completed.
Archbishop of Philadelphia Dennis Dougherty (1918 until his death in 1951) blessed the church-school building July 7, 1919. The church occupied the first floor, and a two-room school was on the second floor. To the rear of the classrooms, a small apartment provided living quarters for two Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
A rectory was purchased at 917 Franklin St. and served the needs of the parish until 1942.
In the years that followed the parish experienced tremendous growth, and by 1930 the school consisted of 130 students, a convent was purchased for the increasing number of sisters and Father Bornemann began a search for a new site for a larger church structure.
In 1928 Father Bornemann was transferred. His successor, Father John Wachter, exchanged the property for $50,000 in cash and a parcel of land bounded by Lakeview Drive, Cherry Street, Seventh Avenue and Franklin Street in West Reading.
The cornerstone of the new building, constructed from local granite, was laid in 1929, and the new church was blessed in May 1930.
In 1943 Father Theodore Wagner was named the new pastor. Under his guidance, the parish became the mother-parish for St. John Baptist de la Salle Parish, Shillington.
By 1953 1,000 more faithful joined the parish; the school was educating 460 students. With 3,000 parishioners both the church and school were overcrowded. In 1960, Father Wagner broke ground for a new church structure on the corner of Franklin Street and Lakeview Drive.
In June 1979 Father Alfred Ott became the fourth pastor of Sacred Heart. Working with parish leaders, a capital campaign was begun to finance a parish center to provide space for parish activities. The parish raised sufficient funds for construction of their new center and parish offices that were completed in 1982.
In 1989 Father James Reichert was named pastor of Sacred Heart. After the celebration of the parish’s 75th anniversary in 1992, Father Reichert and his flock embarked on a capital campaign to help renovate the school.
In 2000 the original aluminum tubing bell tower was unsafe and was replaced with a 65-foot granite campanile.
In 2003 Msgr. DeSantis was named the sixth pastor. He steered a committee of parishioners in refurbishing the parish and promoting Catholic education.
“From its very beginning, Catholic education was a vital part of the parish. Through education, the children of the humble immigrants found their life’s path into new careers and opportunities,” he said.
In addition, their faith and generosity help build Berks Catholic High School, Reading (Holy Name High School); John Paul II Center for Special Learning, Shillington; and other diocesan institutions.
“The faith of the people of Sacred Heart has remained constant and strong, faithful to the Church, meeting challenges as a fledgling family of faith to a vibrant parish that reaches out to help those in need in our local communities, the Diocese and the Church universal,” said Msgr. DeSantis.
“These past 100 years have been a blessing to not only the people of Sacred Heart but also to our local communities. We are a family who stand on the shoulders of those strong and determined Catholics who worked tirelessly to hand on the faith to family, friends and community.
“We are their beneficiaries. But perhaps more important, we are also the stewards of the faith that has been built into what is now Sacred Heart Parish – to care for what has been given us and to conscientiously work to grow our spiritual, social and physical heritage.”
Today the parish has approximately 1,100 households and 2,900 souls. The Jubilee Mass will be followed by a banquet at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, Reading.