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Neighbors with History: Sacred Heart

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Sacred Heart Cultural Center is known by many due to its striking architecture and proximity to the John C. Calhoun Expressway, the overpass that links downtown Augusta with Washington Road. In fact, Sacred Heart is one of the more familiar sights as you enter downtown, yet its function is not what it may at first seem. It is no longer a church.

The irony is you would be hard pressed to find a more welcoming and accessible center. Run by a non-profit guild, Sacred Heart houses various cultural activities and hosts numerous cultural and independent events. Executive Director, Sandra Fenstermacher told me it is also a much desired facility for weddings, concerts and other celebrations. But this piece of Augusta’s history had to fight to survive.

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Built in phases by Jesuit Priests, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was opened for services in 1900 and served its congregation for over 70 years. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, its Gothic style and stunning stained glass resulted in not only a magnificent architectural masterpiece, but a much loved place of worship for generations of Augustans.

Reminiscent of European style cathedrals and abbeys, Sacred Heart comprised a convent, rectory, school house and church. The church was home to Jesuit priests while the convent and school were managed by the Sisters of Mercy. The school house was built in 1864 prior to the church building, in anticipation of the growing population; spurred on by the mills and development of the canal.

Sacred Heart, one of three Catholic churches in Augusta, developed a vast and devoted congregation. Its popularity only dwindled following the gradual dispersion of the general populace from downtown and the development of suburbia in areas such as Martinez, South Augusta and Evans. The last mass was held in Sacred Heart on July 3, 1971.

And then it lay vacant.

Sacred Heart was deconsecrated and the buildings were put up for sale, but for many years there were no takers. The future of Sacred Heart was uncertain until the early 1980s when the property was purchased by Knox Ltd.; spear-headed by Peter S. Knox III, renovations began in 1983 and the Sacred Heart Cultural Center opened in 1987.

Preserving and maintaining Sacred Heart requires extensive efforts in terms of monetary donations, fund raising and planning. The Knox family still owns the title of the building – but day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the members of Sacred Heart’s Board of Directors and Guild members. Today, the Sacred Heart Cultural Center is home to administrative offices of local arts groups and other non-profit organizations, including the Greater Augusta Arts Council, Augusta Ballet, Choral Society, Children’s Chorale, Symphony Orchestra Augusta, the Augusta Players, CSR Girls Scouts and the Red Cross.

As a noted feature of Augusta’s downtown skyline, the Sacred Heart Cultural Center now welcomes many visitors from all over the world. Its annual events are well-loved and highly praised, while those individuals who wish to serve as benefactors are welcome to contribute to its maintenance and upkeep through donations. Tours of the building are permitted, as is renting the facility for private functions such as balls, weddings and more. In the coming months, the Center will host the Augusta Choral Society Concert, an art exhibition, the Augusta Children’s Chorale Dessert Concert, a bake sale by the Sacred Heart Guild and the highly revered Christmas Event, “A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols.” For a full list of events, go online to www.sacredheartaugusta.org.

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