Irish from the beginning

For many years there were only two Catholic churches in Rock Island, one for those who spoke German (St. Mary’s) and another for the English speakers (St. Joseph’s). But as Rock Island grew towards Moline in the 1890s, another English speaking church was needed, in particular for Rock Island’s growing Irish Catholic population. 

On July 28, 1898, the Rev. John F. Lockney organized a new congregation called Sacred Heart and purchased a plot of land at the corner of 28th Street and 5th Avenue for $5,500.00, which included a house on the site. This was the Ben Harper House, one of the oldest homes in the City of Rock Island and a structure nearly as interesting as the church. The house dates from as early as the 1840s when this area was part of the pioneer village of Farnhamsburg. It’s included on an 1857 map that shows several large homes on Moline Avenue (as 5th Avenue was then called). Because of the scale of the map and lack of real addresses, we are not certain of the rectory’s original owner, but believe it to have been John Boyle, a prominent settler, landowner and builder. We do know that Ben Harper sold the home to Charles Buford in 1853. Later, William Whitman, a Chicago businessmen who built the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi purchased it. It was later occupied by the Milo Lee family and one his daugters, Rhoda, married Fred Denkmann, Jr. there in 1884. When originally built the kitchen was separate from the house itself, commonly known as a summer kitchen. Before being purchased by the church, additional owners used it as a boarding house.

Historic rectory

The rectory is built in the Greek Revival style, popular from 1820 to 1860, although it shares similarities with earlier 18th Century styles, including Georgian and Adam. The window panes surrounding the front door are characteristic of the style. Four chimneys are built into the end walls and the third story windows are covered by ornate grillwork. Sanborn maps show that the porch was enlarged to its present size after 1906. Today, our rectory is the last remaining example of Greek Revival architecture left in the city of Rock Island.

The new parish sat in the center of a neighborhood known as “Greenbush,” which was filled with Irish Catholics, many of whom worked for the railroads, notably the Rock Island Lines. Over time one has to wonder if the pastors selected for Sacred Heart were chosen for their ties to the Irish community, with names like O’Neill, Fitzpatrick, McGinn, Murphy and Cunningham. As with most ethnic neighborhoods, the parish became the center of neighborhood life. The new parish territory included all of the English speaking Catholics between 28th Street and 46th Street - a sizable parish territory, which remained intact until the founding of St. Pius X parish in Rock Island in 1960. St. Anthony’s Hospital and Alleman High School were also included within the parishes boundaries.

Time to build

Father Lockney first built a temporary, small frame church and used it for two years as funds were raised for a new, more permanent structure. Once it was time to lay the cornerstone, the parochial residence (rectory) had to be raised and moved twenty feet East to have enough room to build the new church. That was quite the feet - especially in those days.

The cornerstone of the new church was laid in May 25, 1901, and it was an ecumenical event, with representatives of many local churches present. Auxillary Bishop P.J. O’Reilly of Peoria presided over the celebration, which included the Augustana College brass band playing “sacred and patriotic” music. Only a year later, the new church was dedicated and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas morning, 1902. The new church cost “only” $36,000 to build. As a comparison to the value of the dollar and inflation, that was more like $500,000.00 to the early parishioners of Sacred Heart.

The church was designed by local architect George Stauduhar, a prominent designer of churches throughout the Midwest, and the contractor was John Konosky, whose office were very close by at 2828 5 1/2 Avenue. In many ways, the church is typical of Mr. Stauduhar’s style, which is often termed “eclectic,” meaning that he combines a variety of elements into a single building. The steeply pitched roof, pointed arched openings at windows and doors, and the round “rose” windows, as well as the rudimentary flying buttresses are all elements of the Gothic Revival style. The many stained glass windows are original, and imported from Europe.

But a Gothic church would almost certainly have a tall steeple. Stauduhar’s original design called for twin steeples on the north end, with one on the west side reaching 156 feet high and the one on the east reaching 136 feet, but the congregation ran out of money before they could be built. These shorter towers are reminiscent of Romanesque-style churches, which often had similar bell towers beneath shallow pitched roofs. At Sacred Heart, however, the designs never encompassed a belfry.

On the inside, the historic architecture and furnishings are intact, including beamed ceiling arches and richly ornamented pews. Transoms above the three main entry doors have unusual “paisley” shaped jeweled windows incorporated into their relief molding. Even the original Henners pipe organ is regularly maintained and used to this day. The organ was donated by Simon Burns, formerly of Rock Island, who later became a labor leader in the East, as a memorial to his mother, Mrs. Mary Simpson.

There have been some alterations and improvements to Sacred Heart over the years but for the most part it remains intact. The front stairs had to be reconfigured when the city widened 5th Avenue, bringing the street right up to the church. At the same time the small iron-fenced front lawn had to be removed. Although many churches suffered through changes to their interior after Vatican II, Sacred Heart is close to the same way it looked when it was built. The “Gingerbread Gothic” High Altar and Communion Rail remain, as does the ambo and sedelia. Necessary additions and modifications have been made to keep up with new needs (including changes in liturgical practice) but the changes have been done so well that they have not detracted from the historic quality of the church.

Visitation Sisters and the Villa de Chantal

When the Visitation Sisters came to Rock Island from Maysville, Kentucky in 1898 to establish a new school, they lived for a time on the second floor of the rectory while they cleaned the nearby old Reynolds mansion (also on parish grounds) for their first school. They remained here for the first two years they were in the area but because of the enormous success of the school they chose to build a larger school and bought property on Ball’s Bluff at the edge of the Highland Park part of Rock Island. This larger school opened in 1901 as the Villa de Chantal. In a gesture of continuing gratitude many years later when the Villa de Chantal had closed and the property was to be sold, the Sisters gave Sacred Heart a statue of Christ with upraised arms that once stood at the Villa. This statue now is mounted in front of our rectory. We also have a statue of the Sacred Heart from the Sisters’ private chapel that is located in our sanctuary. To our knowledge these are two of the only known remaining statues from the Villa still in the area.

A school is built

The Rev. Clement P. O’Neill who succeeded Father Lockney in November 1913, erected the three-story brick school at the rear of the church. On Friday, June 8 1923, the Feast of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and patronal feast of our parish, Bishop Edmund Michael Dunne, blessed the cornerstone of the new school building at 7:30 a.m. along with Fr. O’Neill and Fr. Enos Barnes of Geneseo, IL. The total cost of the new building was between $65,000. The architect was Edward Lerch who was a parishioner of Sacred Heart and supervising work was done by C.J. Larkin who had also overseen construction of the church. General contract work was done by Jasper Sievers, the plumbing by Channen & Dufva and the heating by Moore of Davenport. McConochie Brothers did the brick and stone work. Dedication of the new school took place on December 16, 1923. A small addition to the school was built by Father O’Neill’s successor, the Rev. John F. Fitzpatrick, during his pastorate from 1929 to 1946. This addition was intended to house a large boiler for a centralized heating plant for both the school and parish. Father Fitzpatrick also provided an air-cooling system in the church!

Father Fitzpatrick was succeeded by Msgr. Thomas J. Jordan in December 1946 and it was under Msgr. Jordan’s pastorate that a six-room addition to the school was completed in 1950. In 1957 Father J. Walter McGinn succeeded Msgr. Jordan, who left to be pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island. Fr. McGinn directed the the construction of a new convent to house the B.V.M. Sisters teaching at Sacred Heart Grade School. The former parish convent was remodeled and enlarged to house the B.V.M. Sisters at Alleman High School. 

Fr. Raymond J. Lassuy succeeded Father McGinn in 1960. Around this time the B.V.M. Sisters teaching at Alleman moved to a convent at the high school and the old convent was closed and sold in 1969. Sacred Heart School became part of the consolidated Jordan Catholic School system in 1969 was known as Jordan North. It housed several classes, eventually just the 7th and 8th grade students of Jordan. It remained an active school until Jordan became a consolidated campus at St. Pius X Parish.

Uncertainty in the 1970’s

Father Lassuy was succeeded in 1976 by Father Thomas Murphy, who had previously been an assistant at St. Pius X Parish. It was during the time of Fr. Lassuy and Fr. Murphy that there was initial talk that perhaps there were too many Catholic parishes in Rock Island. Many of the pastors spoke of crushing finances while trying to maintain the many buildings at the parishes from the church buildings to rectories, schools, gymnasiums and more. The pastors of Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s worked on a co-op ministry program that saw shared used of staff and talents, which also helped to decrease expenses for all parishes involved. While the parishes in Rock Island continued to survive, the reality of shifting populations away from the downtown areas would eventually lead to decreased memberships at the downtown parishes. That did not deter the faithful of Sacred Heart though, who continued their vibrant liturgies and social events including the very popular Saint Patrick’s Day Parties hosted by Fr. Murphy, the annual dinner dance, ice cream socials, and more. Changes at Sacred Heart included the renting of the rectory to the Benedictine Sisters as a House of Prayer for many years. Sacred Heart retained a small portion of the south end of the house for use as a rectory. Fr. Murphy was pastor of Sacred Heart until 1982 and then Sacred Heart entered uncharted territory.

A Sacred Heart boy comes home

In those days parishes that were without a pastor were sort of “advertised” in the Catholic Post and interested priests could inform the bishop of his desire to be assigned there. After a little over a year without a resident pastor, Father Ambrose Cunningham wrote to Bishop O’Rourke indicating that “Sacred Heart was just too nice of a parish to not have a pastor” and could he be assigned there. Bishop O’Rourke accepted and Father (later, Msgr.) Cunningham was named pastor in 1983. He inherited financial difficulties at the parish and a rectory that was not fit to be lived in. He spent his first year as pastor living down at St. Mary’s in Rock Island thanks to the generosity of Fr. George Schroeder. Fr. Cunningham was known as a bit of a financial whiz and it was under his leadership that the parish regained their footing financially and were able to undertake many improvements to the parish. This included the building of the Good Shepherd Vestibule connecting the parish to the rectory, repaving the entire parking lot, the re-opening of the entire parish rectory for parish use, numerous improvements to the school, and much more. During the Jubilee Year of 2000, Msgr. Cunningham directed the repainting of the church interior as part of the parishes 100 year celebration. Perhaps the most important thing Msgr. Cunningham did was ensure that the parish was debt free. One spring day Fr. Cunningham was asked to come and meet with the Bishop. Fearing there was to be a talk about the viability of Sacred Heart he drove to Peoria with documentation in hand regarding the finances of the parish and the ways the parish had grown over the past fifteen years. When he arrived there was someone on hand to literally size him up. The bishop had not invited him down to discuss the parish, rather, to name him a Monsignor, a title he had previously declined several times. Bishop Jenky wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer this time. Msgr. Cunningham remained pastor of Sacred Heart until December of 2006, when after a Saturday evening Mass, passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Sacred Heart in the 21st Century

Fr. Greg Jozefiak, already pastor of St. Mary’s in Rock Island, was first named administrator and then pastor of Sacred Heart in 2007. The new reality for the historic parishes below the hill in Rock Island was that they would now shared a pastor who also had duties to teach at Alleman High School. Fr. Greg directed the re-carpeting of the church sanctuary in 2007, the construction of a brand new altar of sacrifice, a newly remodeled sacristy, as well as numerous painting projects he personally did himself. He also oversaw the construction a new, permanent reliquary to house our sizable collection of relics. At one of his last Masses as pastor the parish surprised him by dedicating the reliquary in his honor. 

In June of 2011 Fr. Steven Loftus was named pastor of Sacred Heart (and St. Mary’s) and under his direction the parish installed a new state-of-the-art heating system. The old boiler and heating plant first constructed by Fr. Fitzpatrick in the 1930’s could no longer provide adequate heat for both the parish and school building. Via the generosity of parishioners, the new heating system was installed and paid for without having to borrow any funds. Fr. Loftus also established a new Corpus Christi Procession, which was become a tradition between Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s Parishes to this day.

Fr. Johnjoseph DePorres Logan was named administrator of Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s in 2012 and once again a “Sacred Heart boy” had come home to become pastor, not unlike Msgr. Cunningham in 1983. The Logan family had their roots in both old St. Joseph’s Parish, as well as Sacred Heart Parish and it was here that Fr. Logan celebrated his first Mass after becoming a priest. He had also served here as deacon as he finished his studies in the priesthood. The large tree on the front lawn was planted in his honor on the day of his ordination. For the first time since 2006, Sacred Heart had it’s resident pastor living on-site in the rectory. Fr. Logan oversaw the spiritual care of the parish until his passing in the Spring of 2016. 

June 2016 saw the appointment of Fr. Anthony Co as pastor of Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s parishes. Under his leadership the parish saw a great revival and tremendous growth in new families joining the parish. Under Fr. Anthony’s leadership Sacred Heart saw the removal of the former school building and the development of a park-like greenspace behind the church. The parish also began the work of restoring and protecting our historic stained-glass windows, painted parts of the interior of the church, put a new roof on the south end of the parish, installed a new sign on the front lawn, installed new carpet throughout the body of the church, had cushions made for all pews in the front half of the parish, re-illuminated our high altar, and saw many more improvements to our property. More importantly, the parish, under his leadership adopted many spiritual efforts including a parish-wide Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Lenten and Advent prayer evenings, increased Confessions and Adoration opportunities and embraced a call to discipleship and small-group development among the parishioners. Once again, Sacred Heart was thriving and growing.

In June 2019, Fr. Luke Spannagel was named pastor, and is currently shepherding our parish into its 125th Anniversary in 2023.

Already more than a century old, Sacred Heart has weathered its years gracefully. When Sacred Heart has needed a champion, and someone to care for it - God has always provided. This magnificent parish continues to soar high above 5th Avenue because of the love and care it has been shown by dedicated pastors and parishioners. May God bless the people of Sacred Heart Parish always.