Sacred Heart Parish was established in 1881.
Prior to 1881, the spiritual needs of the Norfolk community were attended to by the church in West Point, NE.
The first pastor was Rev. Thomas Carney (1881-1884). He came to Norfolk in 1881 and realized there was no church in which to say Mass and no house in which to live. But through the generosity of the Norfolk Public School Board, Fr. Carney was able to say Mass in the town’s only schoolhouse, located at the northwest corner of 4th and Norfolk Ave.
The Catholics of Norfolk had been anticipating their first resident pastor as early as December 1879 when property for a Church was purchased for $50.00. In 1883, a small frame church was built at 5th and Madison Ave. Succeeding Fr. Carney was Fr. Joseph Ruesing (1884), Fr. Ferdinand Lechleitner (1884-1890) and Fr. Thomas Walsh (1890-1893). Fr. Walsh realized that the small church was soon too small for the congregation, so plans were to build a brick structure that would seat 300. This church, completed in 1899, still stands. Following Fr. Walsh as pastor were Fr. W.N. Lawrence (1895), Fr. P Waldran (1896), and Fr. Thomas Walsh again from 1897-1908. The next pastor, Fr. J.C. Buckley (1908-1914) added an extension to the church along with a sanctuary and two sacristies.
Fr. D.W. Moriarty (1914-1930) was the next pastor assigned to Norfolk. Fr. Moriarity brought Catholic education to Norfolk with the building of a three-story grade school just west of Sacred Heart Church. Sacred Heart School opened in the Fall of 1926 and was staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, MN. The Sisters of St. Francis taught for 48 years in Sacred Heart School, ending in June 1974 due to declining numbers of sisters and changing priorities. He died on October 22, 1930 and is buried in Omaha, NE at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
The next pastors were Fr. B. Westerman (1930-1931) and Fr. Hugh Gately (1931-1936). They were succeeded by Fr. Robert P. Burns (1936-1961) who later oversaw the expansion of the church and school due to the booming population increase in the Norfolk population. Times were very difficult in the 1930’s with the Great Depression and dust-bowl drought. The Parish had a debt of $68,000 and was threatened with foreclosure. But Fr. Burns and the parishioners believed in Catholic education and, through many great personal sacrifices, paid off the church debt in 10 years. This great faith inspired several young men and women to enter religious life.
In 1952, Fr. Burns’ efforts were recognized when he was made a Monsignor. By that time, in 1951, a new brick rectory and a brick convent for the Sisters had been built at a cost of $120,000. They were located to the south of the church. An open house and a reception was held on February 23, 1952 honoring Msgr. Burns. He noted that when he came to Norfolk there were only two Masses. Now there were four. He also said that because of the loyalty, hard work and kindness of the parishioners in retiring the debt, that the school may need to be enlarged. In 1956, a fifth Mass was added to the church schedule and there were two assistants helping Msgr. Burns and more than 450 children were attending Sacred Heart School. A two-room separate building was built, but it proved to not be enough space.
Msgr. Burns, along with the help of Fr. William Martin and Fr. Conrad Spenner, set about developing a campaign. On February 18, 1956, with Maynard Howard as the chairman, a goal of $185,000 was set to add on a 12-room addition to Sacred Heart School, and to buy land for a gymnasium and athletic field. The “largest army of Catholic men ever mobilized in Norfolk” made calls upon families in the city. Along with the adult drive, the school children pledged to also raise $10,000. By the time the drive ended, over $232,000 had been pledged with “gifts from the heart”. Beckenhauer Brothers submitted the low bid of $94,605 in March 1956 for the general contract, Martin Heating & Plumbing received the plumbing contract, Claussen Electric the electric contract, and Joe Hupp the heating contract. In July, 1956, an addition was also added to the convent to provide more space for the Sisters at a cost of $22,000. With the school addition costing about $155,000, the parish spent about $375,000 in improvements from 1950-1957.
Archbishop Gerald Bergan dedicated the new school addition on Sept. 29, 1957 and plans were already being discussedabout building a new high school and acquiring land for an athletic field near 24th & West Madison Ave. Bids were taken in June 1959 for the school & gym for an estimated cost of $206,000. Beckenhauer Brothers was again the general contractor.
Classes opened in the new high school in the fall of 1960, with Fr. Hugh Schwartz as the principal of what was called Nazarene High School. But Archbishop Bergan listened to the appeals of several prominent parishioners and in January 1961, the name was changed to Burns High School, honoring Msgr. Burns. The building and equipment cost totaled $340,000. Msgr. Burns had asked for a transfer to a smaller parish (St. Agnes in Omaha) with less responsibility late in 1960 and was honored with a going away reception on January 15, 1961. He was presented a plaque by the City of Norfolk for all of his the hard work in building up Sacred Heart Parish. In June 1961, Msgr. Burns returned to give the commencement address to the 28 members of the first graduation class of Burns High.
Two years after being ordered by Msgr Burns, a 12 foot tall, 5 1/2 ton white Italian Carrara marble statue of the Sacred Heart finally arrived and was placed on a pedestal in the athletic field south of Burns high school.
The next pastors for Sacred Heart Church were Fr. Louis Demers (Jan. 1961-June 1961) and Fr. Peter Dunne (1961-1968). In 1962, it became necessary to hold two additional Masses at Burns High School because the parish had grown to 820 families and the eight Masses at Sacred Heart Church were not enough. By 1965, there were nearly 1000 families in the Parish. Ten acres of land had been purchased as the site of Burns High School and an additional ten acres were purchased south of the athletic field. Fr. Dunne gathered a building committee together to make plans to build a new church next to Burns High School. Beckenhauer Brothers was again the general contractor.
On August 22, 1965, the parish held an outdoor Mass to lay the cornerstone of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on West Madison Ave. On July 10, 1966, the official dedication of St. Mary’s Church was held with Archbishop Gerald T. Bergan in attendance. The four-story Immaculata Convent on North 18th St. was dedicated on the same day. The event was a special highlight of the Freedom of Religion Day during the Norfolk Centennial celebration in 1966.
The new St. Mary’s square design with a 12-sided dome and four rectangular projections attracted considerable attention in the Norfolk area. Seating capacity is 800. The sanctuary was planned so that Mass could be said with the priest facing the people. The sacristies, ushers room and brides room, baptistery and mechanical room are in the four rectangular projections. Four exterior courts are incorporated in the arrangement and open visually to the inside of the church by clear and stained glass. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was donated by an anonymous donor and is made of carved lindenwood from Ortiesei, Italy. It was placed at the inside the south entrance of the church.
The next pastors of Sacred Heart Parish were Fr. Robert Steinhausen (1968-1970), Fr. Thomas Debacker (1970-1977) and Fr. Martin Conley (1977-1983). Times were tough financially in the early 70’s, but the parishioners scraped by and came out from under. In June 1975, Fr. DeBacker said a Mass of Thanksgiving to note the final payment on the debt of St. Mary’s Church. Even though the church debt was paid off, the parish as a whole was still deeply in debt. Several projects were started to offset and pay down the debt: the Norfolk Catholic School Foundation, the Cadillac Stag, Vegas Nite, Wings Over Norfolk, Super Bingo, and weekly sweepstakes helped to provide extra funds. In later years, several of these projects were succeeded by the Norfolk Catholic School Booster Club which continues to support the school in various ways.
Two of the more popular activities are the annual “Fun In The Sun” Parish Festival. Started in 1972, it continues today. Many activities are offered: carnival games, auctions, raffles, booths of all kinds, a noon meal, and a morning festival Mass. Another activity started in 1990 is called “Spirit”. This annual fundraiser for the parish converts the NCHS gym into a elegant dining room in which a catered meal is served and both silent and oral auctions are held.
Spiritual growth continued at an even pace through the years. Vatican ll was convened in 1962 and closed on December 8, 1965. It opened the door for English to be used during Masses, moving the altars of both churches so that they faced the congregation, removal of the communion rail at Sacred Heart, Reconciliation was made either in the traditional confessional or face-to-face with the priest. Lectors and cantors were added to read and sing the Word of the Lord. Eucharistic Ministers of Holy Communion were added to help distribute Holy Communion. In 1979, four parishioners were ordained as Permanent deacons to assist the priest in proclaiming the Gospel, presiding at Baptisms, weddings, funerals, and instructing adult education classes.
Other organizations were added to advise the pastor. These groups began to assume more decision-making functions as pastoral burdens increased, although the final decision continued to rest with the pastor. Active organizations that helped sponsor parish activities were: Altar Society, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of the Americas, Legion of Mary, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Building committees and parish trustees were soon added to assist the pastor. In 1968, a School Board of Education was elected to govern the school and CCD.
In 1969, a study was conducted by the Archdiocese as a parish self-analysis program to deal with religious education needs and resources. To do this Fr. Steinhauser organized a temporary council of the school board members, CCD members, and officers from other parish organizations. One conclusion of this study was that a permanent pastoral council should be established as a central decision-making body governing parish activities. On August 28, 1971, a permanent pastoral council election was held and in September 1971, the following parishioners were elected to the first Pastoral Council: Lou Brtek, Rose Leise, Jack Costello-vice president, Ruth Casey, Leo Ruhlman-president, Ivan Van Dyke, Peggy Eucks-secretary, Mrs. Thomas Armbruster, Mrs. Harlan Krebs, Bernard Craven, & Gil Fournier. In 1973, the Archdiosces Pastoral Council was established and Jack Costello, Eugene McFadden, Al Kerwin, Marie Larson, Julie Oetter, Richard Mueting, Fr. DeBacker, Fr. Francis Lordemann and several Benedictine Sisters were the first delegates to the APC convention in April 1974.
Also in the 1970’s various other groups were formed, such as the Cursillo movement, Renew, Charismatic groups, Bible study groups, Search, First Friday Club, Marriage Encounter, & Parent Support groups. A survey by the APC in the late 1970’s found that the parish was no longer a center of social activity as in earlier days. By 1979, there were 1450 families registered in the parish.
Many items were donated to Sacred Heart Church in memory of loved ones. Among those items are: the high altar was donated by Joseph & Mary Clinch-It is very ornate and included angel statues on either side. The painting above the high altar was painted by Francis & Patrick Weishapl and later redone in deeper colors by Paul Weishapl. Tables were donated by Katherine Synovec for the basement, Henry Mittelsteadt and Francis Wagner donated the tabernacle in 1947 after they had it milled and then gold-plated, Mr. & Mrs. John Eucks donated the Pieta in memory of her mother, Bridget Leahy, Mr. John Davis donated the two holy water fonts at the church entrance in memory of her husband. For 12 years, Marie Reefe kept the vigil light on the south side of the high altar burning for her children and Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence Stange kept the north light burning for deceased members of her family. An easter candle holder was donated in memory of Mrs. Matt Finn by her children, Elmer Kinsella donated chair carriers for the basement in memory of his wife Marion, Mr. & Mrs. Milton Preister donated the crucifix and candle holders for the high altar in memory of their son Daniel, John Szparaga made the church his beneficiary of his life insurance policy, Joseph Baska had an annuity with the parish from the sale of his acreage in 1961. Vincent Widhalm, Jim Widhalm, John Schiffbauer & Ron Haselhorst gave generously of their time to make improvements to both churches and the schools.
The stained glass windows were donated by: Genevieve Stafford in memory of her father Peter Stafford, Catherine Stafford, William Creedon, Joseph & Mary Clinch, Mrs. P. H. Carberry (donated for her children), Mr. & Mrs W. H. Levijohn, Matilds Kost, John Pluhacek, Honora Flynn, Mary Mullen, Michael Mullen, Bertha Irene Wilson, Rosalie Cain, Mary Loxterkamp, Ella Mullen & Frederick Hartlieb.
At St. Mary’s Church, Dr. & Mrs. A.J. Schwedhelm donated the Baldwin organ and sound system, two easter candle holders were donated in memory of Matt Finn by his children, Mrs. Gerald Moore donated the stations of the cross in memory of her husband, Gerald, the tabernacle was donated by Francis Wagner in memory of his first wife, Delia.
On January 11, 1950, Leo Widhalm and Frank Sutholt submitted plans to remodel Sacred Heart Church. The metal ceiling was replaced with inlaid wood slabs imported from South America. They painted the walls above the dadoes and in the sanctuary. Joseph Saskovic refinished the area around the high altar with plaster of paris slabs marbled with green. The large stations of the cross were replaced by small plaques. The collection baskets were made from scrap wood by Julis Hoffman, Jr. A Nativity set was donated by an anonymous donor and added to throughout the years until a complete set is now used at Christmas time.
In 1972, Sacred Heart Church went through another renovation. The mural above the altar was painted over in blue, the lights were replaced with hanging church lights, new carpet was laid in the entire church, new electronic organ was installed in the choir loft, the Sacred Heart statue was placed in the center of the loft, underlayment of the entire church was purchased from Joyce Lumber and labor donated by John Schiffbauer, cabinet work was done on the altars by Jack Kuk, the handrail in the vestibule was donated by the John Skiff family, new holy water fonts were donated by Mrs. John Davis, and the lectern was redesigned by John Schiffbauer. In 1978, the former convent was converted to parish offices.
In 1983, Fr. Robert Nienaber was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish. In 1992 8 more classrooms were added to Norfolk Catholic High School.
In 1993, Fr. Harold Buse was assigned to Norfolk. During this time, several additions were added onto Norfolk Catholic Schools. The Sacred Heart Church building celebrated its 100 year with a renovation. New pews were installed with the old ones sold to the highest bidders. New carpet was installed. A new set of the Stations of the Cross was ordered from Italy and was donated by an anonymous donor.
Fr. David Belt was assigned in 2000 and saw the building of the new Norfolk Catholic Grade School in 2003. The old Sacred Heart School downtown was demolished in March 2009. Sacred Heart Church also had a new mural above the main altar painted by Karl Reeder in 2006.
Fr. Daniel Andrews became pastor in 2010.
The parish is now in its 137th year. It consists of a high school, grade school, parish center, and St. Mary’s Church...all on its west campus. Downtown is the Sacred Heart Church, parish offices, and the rectory. The parish has over 2400 families and approximately 7200 members. Between the two churches, there are six Masses celebrated each weekend, and two on each weekday. There is one assistant priest assigned to help the pastor. Norfolk Catholic School teaches around 775 students in Pre-K through 12th grades. The Religious Formation program (formally known as the CCD program) has around 425 students and is now called Growing Families. In 2014-15, St. Mary's Church was completely remodeled with a re-dedication Mass & reception held on June 13, 2015. In September 2017, the Sacred Heart Early Learning Center was open southeast of the elementary school and has room for approximately 65 children. The parish is vibrant and growing. Exciting times are ahead for the parish!
Assistant pastors assigned throughout the 135 years include the following priests: