The rich history behind Fort Wayne’s Sacred Heart parish illustrates the economic ebb and flow of the city’s southeast side. The parish was founded in 1947 as the result of a post-World War II building boom. Over the decades though, homes aged, jobs left the area and residents moved out. The parish responded to the changing reality, and Sacred Heart is now a tight-knit community of faithful Catholics, most of whom travel great distances to attend Mass there.
The roots of the parish go back to Ralph L. Shirmeyer, who donated six acres of land at Gaywood Drive and Capitol Avenue to the diocese. Archbishop John Francis Noll assigned Father Fred Westendorf, who had just returned to diocesan work after serving as an Army chaplain, to oversee the parish.
The original church building was a World War II military barracks that once served as a hospital ward. It was located at Baer Field, now Fort Wayne International Airport, but moved to the donated land. The wooden, single-frame building had a seating capacity of 250. Parishioners donated their time to renovate the building and construct the altar. As construction progressed, Father Westendorf was assigned to serve as director of Central Catholic High School. His successor, Father Thomas Durkin, celebrated the first Mass at the location, held at midnight on Christmas Day 1948.
The following year, ground was broken for an eight-classroom school just south of the church, on Gaywood Drive. Construction also began for a convent to house the Holy Cross sisters who agreed to teach at the new school. It opened for the 1949-50 school year with 102 students enrolled. In 1954, the school expanded to include 16 classrooms, a library, central office and storage rooms.
It became necessary to offer more Masses, as the congregation quickly grew. Initially, there were two Sunday Masses at Sacred Heart. However by the mid-1950s it was up to eight Masses: five in the church and three in the school chapel, located in the basement.
Parishioner and architect James McCarron Sr. designed a new church with a seating capacity of 660 to help accommodate the increasing number of parishioners. McCarron also designed St. Henry School, St. Therese School, Victory Noll in Huntington and the Crosier House of Studies, which has since been demolished. In May 1963, the old church was burned down to make way for the new building. With Father Andrew C. Mathieu as pastor, the first Mass in the new space was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1963.
In 1990, with Bishop John M. D’Arcy’s approval, Latin Mass —the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite — was offered two Sundays each month at Sacred Heart. It quickly gained popularity, and Bishop D’Arcy subsequently granted permission for Latin Masses to be celebrated there every Sunday and Holy Day. Over the years, as diocesan priests who had learned the Latin Mass as seminarians aged and were not able to assist as often, Bishop D’Arcy asked the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter for help. In 2008, Fort Wayne native and Bishop Dwenger High School graduate Father George Gabet, FSSP, was sent in response to Bishop’s request.
In the meantime, demographics of the city’s southeast side were changing. Major employers were moving out, as were residents. Changes were also happening at Sacred Heart School. It closed in 1994 after merging with St. Henry’s. The new school was named Benoit Academy.
In 2011, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades announced that Sacred Heart would become a “personal parish” and serve those who prefer the Extraordinary form of the Mass. Father Gabet became pastor and Father Dan Durkin, pastor of neighboring St. Henry Parish, would offer English Mass once each weekend at Sacred Heart.
During Father Gabet’s time as pastor, in addition to leading the small but faithful Catholic community, an ambitious construction project was begun that included a renovation of the sanctuary. In 2016, as that project continued, he was transferred to Holy Family Parish in Dayton, Ohio. Father Mark Wojdelski, FSSP, subsequently became pastor, with Father James Buckley, FSSP, in residence. Renovations are wrapping up under Father Wojdelski’s leadership, and plans call for the building of a shrine area in the back of the church.
Edward Smith has been a Sacred Heart parishioner for about eight years. He drives to Fort Wayne from Auburn to attend the Latin Mass, but notes that many people drive much farther distances; some coming from Michigan and Ohio. St. Stanislaus parish in South Bend is the only other parish in the diocese that offers Latin Masses.
Smith said he especially enjoys the reverent atmosphere, traditional music and small, multi-generational community at Sacred Heart. He added that all are welcome to enjoy coffee and donuts in the school basement every other Sunday after Mass. There are potluck meals at least every other month, and children often gather together to play football, soccer or basketball in the area next to the school.
Latin Masses are currently the only Masses offered at Sacred Heart. First Friday and First Saturday devotions continue, and there is also a Rosary Sodality as well as an adult choir that sings at all High Masses.
Smith said he would like to invite everyone to try Mass at Sacred Heart, and Father Wojdelski echoed those sentiments by quoting Philip’s words to Nathaniel in John’s Gospel: “Come and see.” In the end, though the history of Sacred Heart parish is rich and meaningful, it is the liturgy celebrated within its walls that has the richest history and the most meaningful experiences, which is the reason it has been a fixture of Fort Wayne’s southeast side for 70 years.
4643 Gaywood Dr
Fort Wayne, IN 46806
Sunday: 8 a.m. (low Mass)
10 a.m. (Missa Cantata)
Weekday: 7:30 a.m. M, T, Th
Saturday: 9 a.m.
First Friday: Confession at 5:30 p.m., Mass at 6 p.m., followed by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Sacred Heart devotion and Benediction.
First Saturday: Rosary at 8:25 a.m. Confession at 8:30 a.m, Mass at 9 a.m.
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