About Our Parish: A Brief
Guide to Sacred Heart Church

 

First Church: New Jersey’s first Catholic church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was built in 1814 at Market and Lamberton Streets in Trenton.  A simple brick building 30 feet wide by 50 feet deep, St. John’s drew a congregation of 30 families from both sides of the river, who continued to depend on visiting Philadelphia priests until 1830, when a resident pastor was appointed.

Second Church:  Fourteen years later, Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had begun to swell the ranks of a congregation of German, French and Irish origin.  The cornerstone for a new, much larger St. John’s was laid that year at Broad and Centre Streets.  Completed in 1848, the new church was classical in design, built of stuccoed brick with a three-story bell tower.  So rapid was the growth of the parish that a wing was added in 1856.  Then, on Sunday night, September 30, 1883, fire destroyed the church, leaving only the exterior walls, belfry and cupola standing.

Third Church: A year after the fire, on August 3rd, 1884, the cornerstone for a new church was laid. On June 12th, the following year, the old St. John’s bell, the one survivor of the fire, rang out again to signal the partial completion of the new church.  Mass was celebrated for the first time in the basement chapel, designed to seat 1,300, although the pews hadn’t arrived and parishioners stood or knelt. Long after the June 30th, 1889 dedication of the new Sacred Heart Church, it was the custom to celebrate only Sunday Masses in the church, while daily Mass continued in the basement chapel.

Architect: As their immigrant flocks grew in the latter half of the 19th century, America’s Catholic bishops sought to build churches and other institutions that would lend their people dignity.  Patrick Charles Keeley (1816-1896), himself an Irish immigrant, was the country’s most prominent and prolific Catholic architect ~ the designer of cathedrals in Boston, Hartford, Buffalo, Albany and Chicago, as well as some 150 churches, including ones in New Brunswick, Jersey City and Newark.

Exterior: Romanesque Revival in style, Sacred Heart takes the form of a central, east-facing block flanked by identical square towers.  The central block and towers are built of brownstone ~ randomly coursed, quarry-faced ashlar blocks.  Each tower is crowned by a frame octagonal drum, above which rises a six-sided dome, topped by a gilded cross.  Above the center doors, at the mezzanine level, are five narrow, round-arched openings.  The central arch is a niche that holds a full-scale statue of the Sacred Heart, while the remaining arches are completed with stained-glass panes.  Above these five openings is a large circular stained-glass window, divided into nine sections.  The rear of the church is a simple rectangular block, capped with the same bracketed cornice highlighting the facade.

Interior: The restrained, if not somber, brownstone exterior heightens the surprise of an elaborate interior design.  Three pairs of exterior double doors lead into a small, spare vestibule, from which the main entry to the sanctuary narrows to a pair of doors.  To the south of the vestibule, in the base of the tower, is a small chapel, while to the north is the staircase that leads to the choir loft above.  The sanctuary, a breathtaking space, is divided into a central, barrel-vaulted nave with groin-vaulted side aisles of slightly lower height.  Separating the nave and side aisles is a square column arcade of highly polished gray granite, capped with stylized Corinthian capitals highlighted with gold leafing against a red background.  The ribbing that springs from these piers divides the side aisles into seven sections, each of which is marked by a large stained glass window.  At the center of each groin vault, the ceiling is painted with a Celtic cross.  The barrel vault of the nave is elaborately painted with frescoes.  The decorative painting continues above the piers of the nave arcade, where portraits of the saints appear in roundels.  Between each of the stained glass windows and continuing across the back wall are large paintings of the Stations of the Cross.  It was the custom of the architect to use one of two sources for the decorative painting of his churches, and for that reason Sacred Heart’s interior is attributed to either Leon Dabo, or the Lambrecht Studio, a New York firm of church decorators.  The polished walnut pews seat 1,150.

Altars: A semicircular, domed apse is elevated above the nave by three steps, with a low altar railing carved of Tennessee marble.  The back wall of the apse is separated into five sections of equal size by trompe l’oeil pilasters.  The four side sections are marked by round-arched openings with deep paneled reveals that are falsely painted, or grained, in an oak pattern.  The doors in these arches lead to a large support area, while the closed center arch contains a small set of bells. To the north and south of the apse are arched openings that mark the termination of the side aisles.  These large niches are decoratively painted and each contains a marble side altar.  The south niche is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and that to the north, to St. Joseph.  The main altar and two side altars were designed by the church’s architect, Patrick C. Keeley; built by Charles E. Hall & Co., of Boston, and installed over a period of several weeks in the spring of 1883.  The main altar, elevated five steps above the floor of the apse, is 24 feet high by more than 18 feet wide and weighs more than 11 tons.  The immense weight is supported by solid masonry piers and 16-inch iron girders installed in the basement.  Each of the side altars is 7 feet 5 inches long and 7 feet 6 inches high.

Pulpit:  In 1903, the parish celebrated Msgr. Thaddeus P. Hogan’s 25th anniversary as a priest by presenting him with a purse of $2,000.  He used the gift to commission the carved marble pulpit.

Windows:  In 1908, 24 stained glass windows were added, fabricated by John Morgan and Sons, Brooklyn, the firm responsible for the church's earlier windows.  Inspired by Renaissance design, each window has a four-foot medallion at its center. On the river side, beginning at St. Joseph’s altar, the windows are dedicated to: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominick, St. Elizabeth, St. Clara, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bernard, St. Rose of Lima, St. Cecelia, St. Anne, St. Joachim, St. Agatha and St. Catherine.  On the street side, beginning at the Blessed Virgin's altar, the windows are dedicated to: St. Theresa, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Lawrence, St. Stephen, St. Lucy, St. Agnes, St. Ignatius de Loyola, St. Aloysius, St. Philomena, St. Veronica, St. Alphonse of Liguori, and St. Vincent de Paul.

Artwork: Two gifts to the church reflect the pottery and porcelain heritage of Trenton.  In the vestibule chapel is the artist’s proof of the Infant of Prague by Cybis Studio, presented to Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his visit to the White House, the first by a pope.  The porcelain Crucifix also located in the vestibule chapel is one of three made by the Boehm Studio, one of which is in the Vatican collection.  Displayed on the side altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin is a circa 1420 painting by Gentile da Fabriano.