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Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers


Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Image by bluekdesign via Flickr

I had long been aware of the rousing 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at a certain North Omaha Catholic church, where gospel music is a main attraction owing to a congregation that includes a significant African American presence and a neighborhood that is predominantly black.  The sign of peace greeting there is also famous for how it brings people out of their pews for open displays of welcome and affection — a marked departure from the usual repressed Catholic ritual. The dichotomy of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is that most of its members and visitors are white, almost all of whom live far from the church’s inner city locale, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  When I finally got around to attending the dynamic service there, I was not disappointed.  The gospel choir and band make a powerful sound and parishioners go out of their way to welcome newcomers.  The story I wrote about this place and its people originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com).

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Something’s happening in Omaha’s African American inner city. Most any day on the Sacred Heart Catholic Church campus at 22nd and Binney a diverse mix of folks gets together for Mass, community service projects, school activities, Rite of Christian Initiation classes, Bible study sessions, et cetera.

Black or white, straight or gay, most Sacred Heart members live far outside this old working class area beset by poverty, unemployment and crime. They gather from all over — the suburbs, mid-town, out-of-town. Some are disaffected Catholics. Others are of different faiths. All come in search of something. The unconditional  embrace and dynamic liturgy they find lead many to make it their spiritual home.

The blended crowds qualify it as Omaha’s most integrated Catholic church. Sacred Heart’s 800 members include about 150 blacks, the majority of whom attend Saturday night service. Sunday mornings at 10:30 the 117-year-old Gothic Revival church fills for a justly famous, popular, rollicking rite that’s livelier and longer than the typical stodgy, albeit sublime, Mass. Mostly whites attend. Some blacks, too.

The SRO Sunday celebration features some nontraditional, by Catholic standards, elements, headlined by the gospel music-inspired Freedom Choir and band. We’re talking raise-the-rafters vocals and instrumentals by stand-up-and-shout, get-justified-with-the-Lord performers who hold their own with any Baptist ensemble. They’ve got it all, minus the robes — big voices, pleasing harmonies, scorching solos, hot bass lines, slamming percussive riffs and rousing piano jags.

The mostly white choir defies expectations. They know how to get down though.

“I grew up as a Baptist. I’ve been around some very spiritual choirs and I would say this one would pretty much give them a run for their money,” said Shedrick Triplett.

Frank Allen describes it as “the most stepped-up Catholic service you’ll see. It’s not this solemn, stagnant, boring service.” Fellow parishioner Johnnie Shaw said, “This is a one of a kind place, not just for Omaha. There’s nothing like Sacred Heart. It’s truly off the beaten path. Its not the traditional Simon-Says Catholic church. It’s a whole lot more than that.” “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. They do things a little differently there,” Triplett said.

Jim Chambers knew he’d found something different the first time he stepped foot in Sacred Heart and heard those sounds. “It wasn’t all that Ave Maria-type stuff. The music was more upbeat.”

Gospel’s a Protestant, not a Catholic thing. The only Catholic churches with a gospel tradition are those with significant black membership. As Omaha’s historic home to black Catholics, St. Benedict has gospel music-rich liturgies.

Music makes Sacred Heart a destination. The congregation’s hospitality, including official greeters, keeps folks coming back. The pews fill a half hour before the service, so get there early. Unlike the silence before most Masses, there’s a din at Sacred Heart. Performers jam as worshipers file in. The crowd interacts. It all feeds what Allen calls “a concert-style atmosphere.”

It becomes one live-wire church, buzzing with a crazy energy from all the praying, clapping, dancing, singing and music making. Call it the Holy Spirit.

“You feel that electricity in the air. You feel that this isn’t just a ho-hum service,” Allen said. “It’s less formal or stuffy, it’s more fun, it’s more lively. You feel you can be a more active participant and not just an observer,” said Anne Chambers.

The hymns offer a call to surrender and action — to walk humbly with God and to serve the least among us. The Our Father’s sung in a hand-holding, communal style that ends with interlinked arms raised overhead. The sign of peace is an over-the-top love-fest with folks spilling out of the pews to exchange handshakes, hugs, kisses, well-wishes. It lasts 10 minutes.

Pastor Tom Fangman admits “it’s not for everybody. Some think it’s too much, too loud, too expressive.” Omaha’s archbishop is reportedly displeased with some of what goes on there, but Fangman insists it’s all orthodox. So does Liz Hruska, who said “it isn’t a fringe Catholic church. It’s just our worship style is a little more emotional and expressive…” She comes all the way from Lincoln to do it. One member drives in from South Dakota.

They’ve been flocking there to worship this way since the 1980s. Then pastor Jim Scholz took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s, but not like it does today.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz said. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

Scholz got the idea for spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,” he said.

He found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,” Scholz said. “Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

Sacred Heart’s black members appreciated the gospel emphasis. “As African Americans what sets us apart as Catholics is we were always exposed to gospel music. At home Mahalia Jackson was required listening on Sundays,” Lynette McCowen said. She added that while gospel “was already a great part of Sacred Heart, it just came to a different level (under Burleigh).”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Tate still leads the gospel choir on Saturdays. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers.

So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz wasn’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle,” he said. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born.

Post-Vatican II liturgies tended to be, well, dull. “When I started there Catholic churches were playing it really safe. Non-denominational churches were full of people who left as a result. A lot of the heart had gone out of the liturgy,” Mueller said. “It was more cerebral than emotional…more head than heart. Father Jim and I were in full agreement that we wanted a joyful celebration.”

By its very nature, she said, gospel taps deep stirrings. “The goal is never to sing it the same way twice because you are never the same person…When you bring your heart and soul to a song it’s fresh and new every time.”

“I think that music cuts right to the heart of things. It’s immediate, it’s arresting, it’s accessible, it’s gut wrenching. I’m trying to move the choir more into being both quiet and big and brassy and loud, but still in a very soulful way,” said Jim Boggess, who succeeded Mueller in ‘99.

The metamorphosis that begat the 10:30 phenomenon happened gradually. A conga drum, a saxophone, a tambourine were incorporated. “No Catholic churches in this area were using percussion then,” Mueller said. “We had to take some risks.”

Among the risks was Scholz extending an open invitation for anyone to worship there. The service evolved into what one member calls “a free-for-all,” or as Scholz likes to say, “a razz-ma-tazz sort of thing.” This vivaciousness includes the marathon, effusive peace greeting — what Shaw calls “a great social celebration.” The fellowship continues after Mass. Substance is behind the razz-ma-tazz.

“I think what grabbed me when I first started going there is that everybody that walks in the door is made to feel important and welcome,” Judy Haney said, “no matter where they’re from, what stage of life they’re at, what they look like, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Gays and straights, poor and rich, black and white, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just welcome.”

“The church is very open to whatever problems you may be going through or    whatever your situation may be,” Jim Chambers said. “Some people there have had their struggles in the church. Some come in with broken spirits. It doesn’t matter,” said Shaw. Haney was among those to find healing. “I was going through a real rough period in my life,” she said, “so I came here, and that was it. It’s just like a second family.” “You’ll never meet a congregation that’s more loving toward each other,” Boggess said.

Irene Kilstrom was drifting from her faith when she found Sacred Heart.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Before you decide not to go to church anymore come to Sacred Heart.’ I did and have never looked back. I really do feel it is a community. Wherever this church was I would go to it. I was in San Diego for a year and looked everywhere in that big city for anything even close to this, and didn’t find it.”

Mary Lynn Focht said she came after “some unfortunate experiences” at “very conservative, narrow-minded” churches, “and what I found here was open-mindedness and tolerance for all.”

Boggess, who’s gay, said at one time he didn’t have a home in the Catholic Church. “I felt unwanted. I’m gay, I’m a big mouth, I’m a lot of things they don’t seem to particularly care for, and I don’t feel that way anymore.” Sacred Heart, he said, “is so unlike anything I had experienced — the joy, the acceptance, the wonderful mix of people…” It all starts at the top. “The message that Father Fangman puts in his sermons — is all about acceptance, it’s all about inclusion,” Boggess said.

Biracial couple Ann and Frank Allen didn’t feel welcome at other churches. “We definitely got the cold shoulder at a couple places — one was flat out rude,” Ann said. “Sacred Heart is not like that. People are hugging you there the first day you’re there. Just a very loving, warm environment.” Frank likes how at Sacred Heart their kids “are judged by their character and not for the color of their skin.”

The Allens come all the way from Papillion. “The drive’s worth it,” Anne said.

Convert Jennifer Di Ruocco feels “welcomed,” not “shunned” as she did elsewhere. Profoundly deaf worshiper Sheldon Bernard appreciates the interpretive signing Julie Delkamiller does for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“People find what they’re looking for here — a Catholic church that nurtures them, makes them feel like they belong and they can feel a connection to,” Fangman said.

In a segregated district saddled by negative perceptions that keep many outsiders, read: whites, away, these pilgrims venture there anyway. So what’s it all about? Are they urban adventurers out ‘slumming’? Liberals assuaging a sense of guilt or satisfying a call to service? Perhaps their presence is an act of faith or a call for action in a community many write-off as hopeless.

“I guess in my case it’s an act of defiance to show people who think like that they’re wrong,” Haney said. “North Omaha gets a bad rap. If you’re prone to believe everything you see in the news, you’d think north Omaha is full of thugs and criminals. We owe it to this community” to overturn those ideas. “This area’s got its problems, but I know so many people in this neighborhood that are just outstanding, wonderful citizens. They want the best for their kids. The school provides kids a great education. Ninety-nine percent of the students are not Catholic,” said Haney, former Sacred Heart school board president.

Toni Holiday said those from outside the neighborhood who support Sacred Heart “have that sensitivity that these are my brothers and sisters.” Anne Chambers said, “I think it means they have a vested interest in that community. I think it says a lot that a church in north Omaha can bring white people in. I like that participation.”

“Many parishioners would never have stepped foot in north Omaha if not for Sacred Heart,” said Pastoral Associate Joyce Glenn. “There’s fear at first but all the scary stories we hear about north Omaha are dissipated when you’re part of the community.” “It really helps people understand to not be afraid to drive down 24th Street,” Michelle Jackson-Triplett said. “The whole north Omaha thing — we need to break through that,” Mueller noted.

Deb Burkholder admits she and husband Kent “worried” when they first went there. “Our perception has changed hugely,” she said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t have its issues — it does. But there are issues downtown.” The couple believe so strongly in North O, the people and the parish that these empty-nesters moved from an Old Market condo to a house across the street from the church.

“We finally came to the realization that things aren’t going to change in our city unless we become part of the change,” she said.

Appreciating differences within a multicultural setting can breech barriers. Music and other ministries at Sacred Heart attempt to do just that.

“My big thing is diversity,” Haney said. “I want to be around people that aren’t like me. I want to learn from them. They have so many things to give. I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches in Omaha and they don’t reflect the world. Sacred Heart looks like the world should. It’s made my life a lot richer.”

Glenn said interracial friendships result from the integrated church’s fellowship. “The more we can become friends,” she said, “the more color blind we are.”

Sacred Heart has an impact on the neighborhood. The school, which serves 130 students, offers employability and life skills classes to help kids out of poverty. Fangman said 98 percent of its grads go onto complete high school. Many earn college scholarships. He said the Heart Ministry Center provides food, clothing, utility assistance and nutrition-health ed classes to thousands each month.

“We’re an anchor,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”

The work Sacred Heart does draws much support — both in dollars and volunteers.
Then there are the throngs that gather for services and special events.

“To get that many people together every Sunday has got to be a stabilizing influence,” Jim Chambers said. “I think it’s healthy.”

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  2. Terry Tighe
    August 30, 2013 at 5:14 am

    When Fr. Scholz was assigned to be Sacred Heart’s Pastor the church and school buildings needed major repairs, the church had a very small congregation and the varying three to five person choir with their old piano was laughable. The Archbishop wanted Scholz to save the inner city mission school and church from financial and structural failure, and build a strong parish and school. The CUES Board had already been formed by Fr. Furlong and Fr. Gilg, which was a brilliant move, but the board raised just enough money to keep the place afloat. Without going into long rambling detail, Scholz recruited staff and people who helped him repair the buildings and grounds, raise teacher’s salaries, create wonderful masses with rousing music that brought people from miles around and fill the church to standing room only , build the school’s K thru 8th grade Employability job related skills curriculum and business mentoring program, and recruit a strong development program and board involvement that were instrumental in raising money to fund all the improvements. John Kenefick, Union Pacific Railroad CEO, was a special blessing when he volunteered to help Fr. Furlong and Fr. Gilg with their first successful Christian Urban Education Service Board (CUES), and stayed on as the board’s honorary chairman through Scholz’s tenure and for awhile into Fr. Fangman’s present position as Sacred Heart’s Pastor. I had to move to Chicago, but I never found a church home like Sacred Heart. I loved working there and going to those special Masses that I never was able to find equaled anywhere else.

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  3. April 16, 2014 at 9:13 pm

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  1. February 8, 2018 at 3:42 am

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