Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

by Karen Olivera Gonzalez and Carol T. Correa de Best

49 Winthrop Street 


At Sacred Heart Church the Puerto Rican community had the power to define and refine its place in Hartford.  Within its structure the Puerto Ricans sharpened and enlarged consciousness, it exposed what was considered by Americans a private life in a public space.  The long standing structure brought about an emotional temperature, a stronger capacity to feel, see and think– certainly knowing where they where but consoled in the yearning for home, Puerto Ricans transformed Sacred Heart into the space where the Heart of the community would viably beat. The space was not blank and tasteless within its walls hung strong religious faith based ties, intertwined with the sounds, smells and flavors of tropical island, Puerto Rico–home.

The Sacred Heart Church is tucked away on Winthrop Street. Built in stages, the first stage being the completion of the basement chapel in 1893. The congregation of the church was formed by a group of German immigrants who had first organized in 1872 by holding mass in German at St. Peter’s School near South Green.

Michael O’Donohue was the Irish architect that first took on the project to construct this Catholic Church for this German-American congregation. The Corner stone was laid September 4, 1892 and blessed by Bishop L.S. McMahon and was later dedicated June 17, 1917 by Bishop John J. Nilan when the construction of the church was finished by German architect, George A. Zunner.

The steeply pitched roof and asymmetrical masses are qualities that identify it with its Gothic Revival architectural style. The tall windows on the sides and front of the church as well as the narrow width of the front of the church are two of its striking features that are common with Gothic Revival structures. The front part of the building was constructed with yellow brick, this brick was most likely used for the façade as a cost-saving measure. The church’s dimensions are about 80 by 160 feet, approximately .2939 acres and when full it holds about 360 people.

If you let your eyes search the coolness of the brick the building becomes a functional spiritual realm made visible and tangible by so many who have entered its space, surely the architect had no idea the cultural image that the structure would create for generations of Puerto Ricans, its physical presence  in Clay Hill is a repository of memories and dreams. The space was built to serve the practical needs of nourishing the neighborhood and boosting the local economy.

As one approaches the church, quickly noticed is the feeling of tranquility and calmness surrounding the building. It is located in a quiet area nestled between trees and vegetation with very few other buildings.   Catholic Charities, a non-profit organization, is located across the street from the church in a small building with a beautiful painting expressing diversity on its front.  If one stands outside, in front of the Church the commercial buildings of the growing downtown Hartford skyline can be observed at a distance. 

 Two staircases leading up to the front door invite one to enter the building with confidence.  Stepping through the front doors, the small but intimate space in which mass is conducted is welcoming.  The distinct aroma of incense within the space is heightened by the breathtakingly beautiful stained glass windows depicting religious scenes, this is a feature that immediately catches the visitors eye.  Learning  the church’s history and the changes it has undergone add to its one of a kind beauty.

Sacred Heart from its dedication in 1917, has been an immigrant/migrant space. New faces consistently joined the congregation. By the 1930’s, Italian and Irish families began registering themselves as part of the once exclusively German parish. After World War II, Puerto Ricans began to arrive in large numbers to work on the tobacco fields near the Connecticut River Valley, and many of them settled in the North End of Hartford. In 1955, Fr. Andrew Cooney from St. Peter’s began to organize services for the many Puerto Ricans that continued to arrive.

During this year, the San Juan Center was founded and later moved to the basement of Sacred Heart Church. In 1964 Spanish priest Fr. Segundo Las Heras arrived from Cuba and began to conduct masses in Spanish at the church.  It was at this point when Spanish masses became the norm at the church and Sacred Heart became the “center for Hispanic Catholicism in the city”. The Puerto Rican Community gathered itself around the Church, during the 70’s. 80’s and 90’s many evangelizing and social aid programs such as the Head Start program, the San Juan tutorial center and the St.Vincent De Paul Society emanated from the leadership of  Sacred Heart.  Father Alberto Zantalla became pastor, and made renovations at the church as well as started a “vibrant parish-based Hispanic youth group for the Hispanic families of the North End”. Prominent Puerto Ricans that were mentored through the Sacred heart youth group were Mayor Eddie Perez, Fire Marshall Edward Casares and Councilman Luis Cotto amongst others. The Church provided a safe space for youngsters in Clay Hill to learn leadership skills and play sports.

St. Justin, St.Martin, & Sacred Heart, the three parishes of the North end of Hartford, in 2001 joined administratively as a group with Father David McDonald as administrator. After Father McDonald’s retirement, Father Roberto Villa was named administrator of the cluster in 2006.

Presently Sacred Heart church continues to “be a vibrant and active center for Catholic evangelization of the growing Hispanic community of Hartford”. All the masses continue to be held in Spanish and are led by Reverend Francis Snell. Although the 430 families registered in the Parish are largely Puerto Rican, there are also Mexican, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran families registered. The parish continues to host and sustain social aid programs such as the John the Baptist Fund for the further education of Hispanic youth, the House of Malta mobile care unit providing health care for the uninsured, and the St. Vincent De Paul Society food pantry and domestic assistance project.

The Puerto Rican community infused their pride in culture and traditions into the parish. They held tight to religion and utilized its power to move the community forward.  The concept of the Puerto Rican Parade was born  and nurtured in the basement of Sacred Heart. Today, when one attends mass at Sacred Heart one quickly feels the sense of community among the members of the church. The songs during the mass are sung by a children’s choir with a stereo playing the beat, they are cheerfully spiritual. The Puerto Rican community at Sacred Heart Church brought with it typical catholic associations from the island like Las Damas de Divina Providencia, las Hijas de Maria, and el Movimiento Cursillista. Parish activities mostly always include Spanish style food, loud music, dancing, and strong coffee.  Some of the largest celebrations that take place at the church are: baptisms, children receiving their first communion and when teenagers make their confirmation.

Sacred Heart is a place within the city where Puerto Ricans in particular feel a connection between their personal identity and this Church.  It is because of the fact that this is space where they can practice their religion and at the same time their culture is present and respected among the leaders, members and activities of the congregation. They also feel a sense of community because their religion and culture is something they all share. The place gives them a sense of past and future because by meeting with other Hispanics and bringing their traditions to the church they remember their past. They pass down tradition to new immigrants from other Latin countries and at the same time look forward to a great future in which they know they will never collectively lose their identity. Also, the small and intimate place, makes every member feel safe, secure, and at peace. Orum and Chen who have written about cities and places, would say that through these four connections to the place, the church is more than just a physical space; it has become a special and important place in the lives of each member of the congregation.

Sacred Heart Church has a rich and vibrant history and has and continues to be an important cultural contribution to Hartford by the Puerto Rican community. Recently Reverend Francis Snell commented: “Everything at Sacred Heart, from Sunday Mass to the parish picnic has a distinctly latino flavor to it. It is a very close knit community and the families come in large part because they feel that their traditions and language are conserved here and passed on to their children.