Sacred Heart Parish was founded in 1880. The original church, known as Saints Peter and Paul, was a small wooden building located at the southwest corner of Marietta and Alexander Streets, twelve blocks west of the present location. When the area became too commercial, parishioners made plans to purchase a new site and build a church “at some distance from the business district.”
In 1897, an Atlanta architect, W. T. Downing, was commissioned to design the new church. In keeping with the then popular devotion to the Sacred Heart, the name of the church was changed to “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” The architectural style is French Romanesque, with some variations and additions.
On May 13, 1976, the Church of the Sacred Heart was entered in the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of its “artistically significant architecture.”
Visible in the exterior perspective of the church are repeated rounded arches, a typical characteristic of Romanesque style. The pattern of rounded arches is repeated throughout the church interior.
Departing from the usual rock masonry, architect Downing used pressed brick and terra cotta for the exterior. As you stand at the western main entrance to the church, and look upward toward the twin octagonal towers, you can notice how the repeated arches, windows and columns serve both functionally and artistically to enhance the building’s facade. The identical towers rise one-hundred and thirty-seven feet above street level, and were once the tallest points of the Peachtree neighborhood.
Between the two towers, a top pediment contains the rose window, with an emblem of the Sacred Heart as its center. When rays of the setting sun filter through the rose window, the interior of the church glows in a myriad of kaleidoscopic colors.
Triple arched doorways provide entrance into the vestibule. Above the doorways, terra cotta arches frame three stained glass windows, and a terra cotta lintel, decorated with acanthus leaves, connects the three doors.
The vestibule (or narthex) provides a desirable space transition from the street to the nave of the church.
Throughout the church, you will notice the names of a number of Sacred Heart’s early families who contributed special gifts to the church.
Above the second set of triple doors, leading from the vestibule into the church proper, is a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This picture is a recent addition, and reflects a membership of Hispanic peoples who have moved into Atlanta and have made Sacred Heart their church of worship.
When you step inside the church, pause a moment to survey the interior as a whole. A sweep of high arches down the central nave immediately directs your attention past the triumphal arch to the sanctuary, with its dominant baldachin displaying a life-sized crucifix. The baldachin serves as a canopy over the Holy Tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
High above the tabernacle, in the dome of the apse, is a full-figured painting of Christ manifesting his Sacred Heart. Christ stands on the globe of earth, and two angels kneel on either side, surrounded by clouds.
Around the curve of the triumphal arch, which separates the nave from the sanctuary, are five painted symbols. The symbol of Christ as the Lamb of God is at the topmost point of the arch. The other four symbols represent the four evangelists: the lion, St. Mark; the eagle, St. John; the bull, St. Luke; and the man, St. Matthew.
At the gallery level, on the south side of the arch, is the escutcheon of the Society of Mary; and on the north side, at the gallery level, is an archdiocesan coat of arms.
Before moving down the nave for a closer look at the sanctuary, notice the confessionals across the back wall. These confessionals were elaborately carved from Philippine mahogany, and have been carefully preserved.
Halfway down the center aisle, pause again and look back to the entrance for a good view of the Sacred Heart rose window and the magnificent church organ.
The 42 rank pipe organ, in the choir loft, contains 2,702 individual pipes. Although it has been rebuilt, the organ retains speaking pipes from the original Hook and Hastings organ, installed in the church in 1899, and preserved ranks of the 1922 Skinner organ. It also has a new division of pipes from the Fratelli Rufatti Company of Padua, Italy.
Above the triple-door entrance is a reproduction of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, in a circular frame.
Noteworthy objects in the sanctuary are the brass kneelers, the sanctuary lamp, two Victorian candelabra flanking the altar, the intricately detailed brass pulpit, and the central tabernacle. On the door of the tabernacle is the scene of the Annunciation.
At the top of the baldachin, the Latin form of the Hand of God issues from the clouds. Three extended digits of the hand represent the Holy Trinity, and the two closed fingers represent the two-fold nature of the Son–human and divine.
On either side of the crucifix is a vertical series of six symbols representing instruments of Christ’s Passion. Beginning with the top symbol on the left, they are: the thirty pieces of silver; the crown of thorns; water with which Pilate washed his hands; the seamless tunic of Christ for which lots were cast; hammer, nails and pliers used for nailing Christ to the cross; and the pillar of the scourging. The six symbols on the right represent: the ladder, spear and sponge with vinegar which Roman soldiers used to torture Christ; the cock that crowed with Peter’s denial; the INRI, King of the Jews, sign placed on top of the cross; Veronica’s veil with which she wiped the face of Christ; a mace and halberd of the Roman soldiers; and a chalice and cross representing the agony in Gethsemane.
An outstanding feature of Sacred Heart church is its stained glass windows. Twenty-eight stained glass windows, from the Mayer studios in Munich, were installed in the church in 1902. There are fourteen windows along the walls of the nave, and seven pairs of narrow windows in the curve of the apse, above the sanctuary.
The seven pairs of windows in the apse have an apparitional theme, and portray particular miraculous appearances. Directly behind the cross, at the top of the baldachin, the central pair of windows depict Christ appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, revealing his Sacred Hert. To the left, the next pair of windows show the angel of God appearing to Christ as He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane while His apostles slept. In the second pair to the left of the Sacred Heart pair of windows, Our Lady and the Christ Child appear to St. Simon Stock, and present him with the scapular. In the third pair on the left, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, in front of the sepulchre.
To the right of the Sacred Heart pair of windows, the first two windows show Our Lady and the Christ Child appearing to St. Dominic, instructing him in the use of the rosary. The second set shows Christ appearing before St. Peter, and giving him the keys to the kingdom, in the presence of James and John. The third pair on the right is thought to portray St. Monica’s vision of a radiant light, which revealed her seventeen-year old son, Augustine, to her. St. Monica was reassured about her son’s future through the vision, and the visit of the radiant light served as a later inspiration to St. Augustine himself.
The south aisle leads to the chapel of St. Joseph. As well as the statue of St. Joseph, the chapel contains a free-standing statue of St. Anthony of Padua, with the Christ Child in his arms. There is also a stand holding seven-day votive candles, duplicated in the opposite chapel of Our Lady.
Just outside the chapel, in front of the stained glass window of the Annunciation, is an ornate baptismal fount, which was a gift to the church in 1901 from a parishioner.
In the vaulting of the side chapels and side aisles, you can notice a departure from the Romanesque architectural style. The groin vaulting appears in early Renaissance architecture, and provides a contrast to the rounded arches of the central nave, which in turn soften the effect of the side aisles.
The fourteen windows along the walls of the nave portray episodes in the life of Christ. Beginning with the window nearest St. Joseph’s chapel, they progress to the rear of the church, and continue down the north side aisle to the chapel of Our Lady. In order, on the south wall, they are:
The Finding in the Temple
The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Sermon on the Mount
Along the north wall, the episodes depicted are:
Jesus welcoming the children
Jesus washing Peter’s feet
The Last Supper
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
Between the fourteen stained glass windows are Stations of the Cross. The Stations begin in front of Our Lady’s chapel, with the Condemnation of Jesus, and they end, near the chapel of St. Joseph, with Station XIV–Jesus being laid in the tomb.
The principal statue in the chapel of Our Lady is that of Mary, Mother of the Church. She stands in a mediatorial position, between heaven and earth, and crushes the serpent (symbol of evil) underneath her feet. The second statue in the chapel is that of Jesus manifesting his Sacred Heart.
Small crosses with candles were placed in the church when Sacred Heart was consecrated, in 1920: eight on the nave walls, and two on the sanctuary walls. These crosses have a special meaning for Sacred Heart parishioners, as they represent the continuance of Sacred Heart as a sacred place for Catholics to worship.
While parishioners take a great deal of pride in the artistic and historic merit of the Sacred Heart building, the church is much more deeply significant to them. Its various signs and symbols are immediate pictorial reminders in matters of the Catholic faith. In the medieval sense of architectural art, these signs and symbols are also educational. Our prayers unite with those of generations who have worshipped here before us, and sustain a link with those who will worship here in the future. United with the daily offering of the Holy Eucharist, our collective prayers, in a true sense, are continuously rendered unto God the Father, through the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The relatively new building adjoining the church on the north side is a three-story wedge-shaped structure, built in 1978. A reception foyer, parish offices, and parlors occupy the street level floor. Private living quarters for priests are provided on the top floor, and in the rear sections of the first two floors. Parish assembly rooms, and two offices, are located on the ground level floor.
A courtyard between the church and the rectory serves to integrate the new assembly rooms on the ground level with the parish center located in the undercroft of the church. The courtyard also provides natural lighting for the stained glass windows along the north side of the church.