In 1901, Calgary was home to only 4,400 residents. Over the following decade, however, the population increased almost ten-fold, prompting Bishop Legal of the Diocese of St. Albert to request that land be purchased for a second Catholic church in the city. In July 1910, a frame structure built by the Oblate Fathers on Diocesan property opened for regular services. Bishop Legal initially designated the church as a mission to be served from St. Mary’s. The west end congregation grew so rapidly over the following year, however, that in June 1911 he erected Sacred Heart as an independent parish with both a pastor, Fr. A. Naessens OMI, and an assistant pastor to serve a mission at Beiseker. Within the year, Fr. Naessens and his still expanding congregation were making arrangements to build a larger, more permanent place of worship. By 1913, however, Calgary’s real estate boom had ended and Fr. Naessens abandoned the project on the sage advice of Fr. A.J. Hetherington, chancellor of the new Calgary Diocese Two years later, Fr. Hetherington himself came to Sacred Heart Church as the parish’s first diocesan pastor.
Elevated to the title of domestic prelate and monsignor in 1924, and raised to the highest rank of prelacy in 1936, Fr. Hetherington left an indelible mark on the Calgary Diocese. Over the next 48 years, he served the Diocese as Vicar Capitular, and Vicar General for four successive bishops. His role in the evolution of Sacred Heart Parish was equally pivotal. While shouldering the burden of diocesan administration, he continued to care for the parish and its congregation until his death in 1963. It was Msgr. Hetherington who enabled the parishioners of Sacred Heart finally to realize their dream of a new church. Thanks to his careful planning and his parishioners’ generous donations, funding was well in hand by 1929. Contractors were in such high demand and labour was so costly, however, that the plan to build seemed impossible The onset of the Depression abruptly removed these barriers. The long-awaited 500 seat place of worship, which generated only a small debt, opened at Christmas in 1930.
In the 1950s, Msgr. Hetherington and his parishioners embellished the church with a steeple and stained glass clerestory window. Fr. R. Sullivan enlarged and renovated both the church and its rectory in the 1970s. To celebrate Pope John Paul II’s 1984 visit to Alberta, Msgr. Joseph LeFort, who served at Sacred Heart from 1982 to 1990, added floodlights to the steeple as a highly visible symbol of Christianity. During Msgr. LeFort’s pastorate, the city of Calgary twice honoured the church congregation with its prestigious award for superlative landscaping. The care bestowed on Sacred Heart Church bore fitting witness to its purpose, which Fr. Hetherington had defined with great eloquence in 1937.
‘It may not be easy for some of us to keep our standards high and our ideals bright through all the trials of life. Many are frail. For such among us, our parish church is a source of comfort. There we may go, confident that we shall find courage, strength and grace to keep His commandments. It is our Father’s House, and He loves to receive our visits. If [we are] His children, then are we brothers to each other, and the parish one great family camped about our Father’s tabernacle.’
In 1954, the Diocese reduced the geographical region that the church served by removing portions of Sacred Heart’s territory to form Holy Name, St. James and St. Michael’s parishes.
As in other parishes, many worshipers here initially found the directives of Vatican II disturbing. Some missed the evocative imagery of the Latin Mass. Others felt uncomfortable at first in their new liturgical, educational and administrative roles. Soon, however, the changes ushered in by Vatican II began to infuse spiritual celebration and parish life in general with new depth and meaning.
From its inception, Sacred Heart had been blessed with an active cadre of volunteers. The choir had brought joy to the parish from its earliest days. The Men’s Association and the Ladies’ Aid Society (which became the Catholic Women’s League in 1948) had helped to organize, fund and maintain Sacred Heart Church. The Vatican II initiatives, however, dramatically expanded both the size of the parish’s volunteer community and the scope of its activities. The new Parish Council and its committees encouraged all parishioners-young or old, male or female to serve the church and each other through a plethora of new ministries. In the late 1970s, under the leadership of Msgr. O’Brien, parishioners extended their services beyond the confines of their own congregation when they joined forces with Scarboro United Church to build a senior citizens’ residence, Bankview House, on land owned by the Alberta Housing Corporation. Their new commitments to the Church, parish and neighbourhood brought parishioners closer to the heart of parish life, enriching their individual and communal journeys of faith.
By century’s end, some of the lay organizations once active in the parish ceased to function with new initiatives taking their place. Sacred Heart’s Catholic Women’s League, for example, closed in 1995, as did the Young Adult Group by 2000. During this same period, however, organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Knights of Columbus flourished. By 2000, parish volunteers led or served as catechists in the RCIA and baptismal and marriage preparation programmes. Members of the pastoral health care team brought communion and companionship to shut-ins and residents at Central Park Lodge. Other parishioners devoted time and talent to the parish’s ‘Godtime’ programme, which was tailored to the needs of the congregation’s young children. Volunteers also continued to serve neighbourhood separate schools, maintaining a particularly close relationship with Sacred Heart School.
In 1996, Sacred Heart Parish embraced approximately 1,600 registered families. The church itself was no longer surrounded exclusively by quiet rows of modest dwellings occupied largely by young, settled families, as it had been during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Scores of apartment blocks had long since transformed Sacred Heart Parish into the most densely populated sector of the city and one of its most transient districts. The change in physical environment had a pronounced impact on the texture of Sacred Heart’s congregation. Its membership fluctuated little in size between 1972 and 1996, hovering around 1,600 families. The congregation consisted primarily of older residents who had been attending Sacred Heart for many years. Their altered physical surroundings did not, however, diminish the ‘courage, strength and grace’ parishioners found within the shelter of Fr. Hetherington’s church.
By 1999, membership in Sacred Heart’s congregation had increased to 1,992 families. The newcomers included numerous young couples. Their motive for joining the parish is perhaps significant. Many were returning to the church of their childhood as they began their own families, even though they now lived well beyond the boundaries of Sacred Heart Parish.