In 1926, the people and pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowmansville, NY decided to construct two shrines – one devoted to the Immaculate Conception and one to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The parish was only six years old and numbered about 50 families. The church had opened in June 1920, followed by a school in 1924 and a convent in 1925. An adjoining large house of Oriental design, built between the 1840’s and the 1870’s, was purchased as a rectory; of the original buildings, only the rectory survives today.
The small parish, still burdened with the debt of its original building program, did not have the money to hire professional designers, stonecutters, or masons. Fortunately, the pastor, Father Edward L. Ott, was a skilled designer and builder. Father Ott and the parishioners did virtually all the construction work. The shrines have survived in good condition for over 80 years, a testimony to their skill and craftsmanship.
Father Ott announced the plans for the shrines on July 18, 1926, and the people of the parish immediately went to work. Men of the parish began to haul the stone, much of which was donated. People brought stones from their farms, so that a part of their property would be incorporated into the shrines. Within a few days of the announcement, the site was filled with several tons of stones.
The first shrine built was the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, facing Genesee Street. This shrine was constructed of rough, discolored stones; even when it was new, it gave the appearance of having been there for many years. The Genesee Sand and Gravel Company donated stone for the ornamental fence and arches, which were built along the Genesee Street frontage at the same time.
The outer walls of this shrine form theshape of a heart, symbolic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The statue of Our Lady stands at the top of the heart. Smaller statues representing the Annunciation and the Assumption are in smaller grottoes.
The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was completed in Fall 1926, and work began immediately on the second shrine, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Unlike the first shrine, constructed of rough stone, smooth field stones were used for the second shrine. These stones, of all shapes and sizes, represent the different peoples and nations of the Kingdom of Christ. The altar is constructed of thousands of pieces of granite and marble, skillfully masoned together into a Roman-style altar. The door of the tabernacle is made of granite in which was placed a sculpture of the head of Christ. The bell in the shrine had been the first fire bell ever used in the City of Buffalo.
Some work was done in the late fall of 1926, until cold weather halted progress. Work resumed in spring 1927, and Bishop William Turner dedicated the shrine on May 30, 1927. He asked that the shrine become a place of prayer and reparation.
Each Sunday and feast day during the summer months, 11:00 A.M. Mass was held in the shrine. Pews and plain benches gave a seating capacity of about 400; elms and maples were planted to form a natural canopy over the congregation. The outdoor masses attracted many tourists and visitors from the surrounding area. It is said that over 100,000 people visited the shrines in the first year alone.
Two years later, the shrines were enhanced by the addition of a number of marble statues and plaques. These came from the studio of noted sculptors Corsi and Nicolai in the Tuscan district of Italy; the marble was from the famous Carrara quarry. The altar was adorned with a center plaque of the Last Supper and two side plaques representing the Old Testament forerunners of the Eucharist -- the sacrifice of Abraham and the sacrifice of Melchisedech. Statues of St. Joseph and St. Theresa of Lisieux, among others, were installed in grottos of the shrine.
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart is built in massive Spanish and Roman style from stones of every shape and size, gathered from the fields of the surrounding country. A great marble cross rises above the altar, and the two candlesticks are made of stone fragments laid in cement.
In the construction of the shrine of the Sacred Heart, the Trinity was a major theme. This is the chief mystery of our Faith and all Christian doctrine rests upon it. There are three principal shrines comprising the whole: the shrine of the Little Flower, St. Theresa of Lisieux on the left as you approach, the central altar, and the shrine of St. Joseph on the right (this shrine was originally in the area which now serves as an access to the church). Arches, whenever possible, were arranged in groups of three, and even the dimensions were divisible by three.
At the left side there is a winding stairway of stone leading to the rear of the belfry, where one may see the statue of Christ the King. At the west side also of the shrine of the Immaculate Conception there is a similar stairway which also ascends to the statue. Each stairway has 33 steps, representing the life of Jesus, with a landing here and there to remind us that, while life as a follower of Jesus is an effort ever to ascend in imitation of Him, it need not lack the compensations of Christian joy and rest in Christ. From these spots one may look backward and downward, as to review one's life. One may also look upward to the Cross and the figure of Christ the King. The thought in the mind of the designer was that our lives should be modeled upon that of Jesus, and we should ascend ever higher and higher until we at last reach the Kingdom where Christ is King.
In 1991, a large metal statue of the Sacred Heart was installed on the lawn near the shrine; it became a popular place for visitors to pray. Marble statues of St. Jude and St. Anthony of Padua were added in the shrine grottoes. The water fountains in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were restored to working order. The Shrine was designated as the official Diocesan Shrine of the Sacred Heart, and rededicated by Bishop Edward D. Head in September 1991.
Further renovations were undertaken in 2003-05. The old trees were removed, and new trees and gardens planted. New sidewalks were constructed in the shrine area, and the wood on the benches was replaced with a maintenance-free product. Outdoor Stations of the Cross were installed, with a circular brick memorial walkway. During the summer months, recorded music and recitation of the Stations of the Cross are played. A large bronze statue of St. Anthony was added, near the Sacred Heart statue; a bench for reflection and a new walkway were installed. Finally, a pavilion, named for Pope John Paul II, was built at the south side of the shrine area, as a place for outdoor social gatherings.
Prepared by Ronald J. Huefner
Sacred Heart Diocesan Shrine
5337 Genesee Street
Rev. Joseph Klos, Pastor
Saturday 4:00 P.M.
Sunday 8:30 A.M. & 11:00 A.M.
Daily Mass Monday through Friday 8:30 A.M.