Sacred Heart Catholic Church History
The influx of African-Americans into the Port Arthur area from southwest Louisiana was inevitable with the boom of the oil industry that ensued. Once word got out, large numbers of people began migrating to the area, which prompted Bishop Nicholas Gallagher of Galveston Diocese to ask the Josephite priests, who had been serving Negro and Indian missions, ‘to consider establishing spiritual care to those people in 1915’. By the time Father Alexis LaPlant arrived, he discovered nearly 200 Black Catholics and began serving them. His task did involve going back and forth between Port Arthur and Beaumont until 1922, thanks to Mother Katharine Drexel, who through her generous contributions, Father LaPlant was able to build a small wooden church, which began the fascinating history which continues to the present day. Father Arthur Flanagan was the first priest to actually take residence at Sacred Heart with Father Joseph Lally being the second in December 1924,with a pastorate that lasted for 19 years. The logistics of the overall development of the parish were challenged by nature’s own traits of this coastal region, hurricanes. In fact, a most devastating one occurred in 1915.
What a remarkable history! This history has not only served the spiritual needs of the Black folk in this area, but has yielded many young men and women to the priesthood and religious life. They include Fr. John Dauphine, S.V.D., Fr. Rawlin Enette, S.S.J., Fr. Anthony Dugay, S.V.D., Fr. August Thompson, Fr. Phillip Linden, S.S.J., and Fr. Michael Thompson, S.S.J. The Deacons are: W.B. Goudeaux, Roy Cormier and Joseph Mitchell. The Nuns are: Sr. Genezieve Repress, SSF, and Sr. Doris Goudeau, SSF. Part of the collaborative effort was led by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who opened a school in 1927 and a High School in 1940. Blessed Katherine Drexel, who was canonized a saint in 2000, established a convent in 1929 for the nuns that served us.
The blessings continued coming as Father James Finegan, SSJ, became the 3rd resident priest, until 1947, when Father Michael McCormick, a carpenter, set foot in the parish and was responsible for a new church and rectory in 1949. The church was 6200 square feet and could seat 600 people.
Following is the list of the priest that have served as pastors of our parish from 1915 to 2010:
|Fr. Alexis LaPlant||1915-1923||Fr. Arthur Flanagan||1923-1925|
|Fr. Joseph Lally||1925-1942||Fr. James Finegan||1942-1947|
|Fr. Michael McCormack||1947-1954||Fr. George Hanks||1954-1960|
|Fr. Frank Dalsey||1960-1967||Fr. Joseph LaFrois||1967-1969|
|Fr. Michael McCaul||1969-1970||Fr. John Tyne||1970-1974|
|Fr. Raymond Woodka||1974-1978||Fr. John Byrne||1978-1981|
|Fr. Edward Bowes||1981-1983||Fr. John O’Rourke||1983-1984|
|Fr. Donald Butler||1984-1988||Fr. Paul Oberg||1988-1991|
|Fr. Roderick Coates||1991-1994||Fr. Anthony Ekanem,MSP||1994-1997|
|Fr. Larry Leduff-Gutierrez||1997-2003||Fr. Oliver Obele, MSP||2003-2004|
|Fr. Charles Atuah, MSP||2004-2013||Fr. Sampson Etim, MSP||2013-present|
With the dawn of the early 1970’s, so did many of the social and economic challenges that were characteristic of our area occur. Major desegregation of schools did happen and around 1973 the oil embargo that made many of our devoted parishioners that had settled in this area because of oil, consider relocating or returning back to their roots in Louisiana, were some of the greatest challenges that we faced. However, just like in previous eras, the priest that served our parish, their gifts emerged so succinctly and enabled us to emerge unharmed and fully viable to the demands that our society and economics were making on us. Some of these accomplishments include: Father Dalsey, who established the St. John Mission Church in 1966 and actually initiated a credit union within the parish. Father Tyne’s political activism, including running for public office which he did not win, instilled a pride and self-sufficiency that was at the roots of much of our progressiveness in the parish and diocese. He is known for things like establishing the CYO on a major scale, with our members beginning to participate in District and Diocesan activities. He also brought the youth group to a skating rink in Port Arthur, which had not been catering to the African-American youth in the community. The Sacred Heart Hall, which was completed in 1975, was a result of the direct efforts of Father Raymond Woodka. This was during our 60th anniversary year. Father Lafrois, between 1967 and 1969, started our first youth choir. Father Butler, during his reign from 1984-1988, basically signaled the formation of our first gospel choir in the parish. These and many other feats are examples of how the priests and their gifts, have resulted in our parish continuing on in a most admirable fashion. Father Roderick Coates, SSJ, our first African-American priest in 1991, was instrumental in getting our parish aligned with all that was happening across America, in our African –American parishes. Elements of worship like liturgical dancers were key instruments at bringing our parish closer together during that time.
The parish saw a very historic year in 1994 when we received our first M.S.P. priest, Father Anthony Ekanem. What a gift! His youthfulness and exuberance were truly a breath of fresh air. He revamped our youth programs and began on a weekly basis visiting all of our parishioners who were no longer able to attend the Eucharist on weekends. Initially, this signaled the fact that the Josephites, whom had served us all of these years, were in a sort of decline in their numbers, with many dying or reaching retirement age, where they could no longer serve our parishes. Then in 1997 came Father Larry Leduff-Gutierrez, the last Josephite to serve Sacred Heart, until his untimely death in 2003. One of his most meaningful contributions was his talent in delivering the word at liturgies.
After Father Larry’s death, Bishop Curtis Guillory of the Diocese of Beaumont and the superiors of the Josephite order met and declared that it would be necessary for Sacred Heart and St. Mary Parish be served by the pastor of St. Mary’s Church, who at that time was Father Oliver Obele, MSP. There were no Josephite priests that were available to take resident at Sacred Heart. Once again the Missionaries of Saint Paul priests were ever present to serve our spiritual needs. Father Oliver began serving both parishes along with an assistant from his order. Each parish was still operating separately. Before long, Father Oliver was reassigned and we were fortunate to have Father Charles Atuah, MSP become our pastor. His responsibilities, just like Father Oliver Obele, did include both Sacred Heart and St. Mary parishes
It was in 2005, that Hurricane Rita took its toll on the Port Arthur area. We had threats from hurricanes in the past, but this time a more direct hit, leaving behind major destruction. Both Sacred Heart Church and Saint Mary Parish sustained extensive damage, but little did we know that the degree of damage at St. Mary would result in the church being closed, never to be opened again. St. Mary parishioners began meeting in their church hall. Sacred Heart was doing the same. It was during this period that a most painful realization occurred. The parishioners of St. Mary Parish would not be having their church repaired. Our Bishop, Curtis J. Guillory, and the leadership from both churches began meeting to plan for the inevitable, our merger. This was not the first time that two parishes had merged, but the emotional and psychological impact of having to give up something that had been loved and cherished for a lifetime for its parishioners was something that had a major impact on its people. However, by the grace of God, we moved forward and that merger officially took place on April 23, 2006, and the name of the parish became Sacred Heart-St. Mary Parish.
Although this historic change has had its impact on our church and overall society, the fruits of our spiritual growth remain apparent. Our church is beautiful. The design of the sanctuary includes parts from both St. Mary and Sacred Heart, a physical characteristic of our merger. As you move about the church grounds, there is something even more visible than that. Father Charles Atuah, MSP has championed our cause for growth and revitalization in our community. The new building which houses the St. Katharine Drexel Educational Center and the Sacred Heart-St. Mary Parish office, so beautifully graces the premise. The dedication of our building by Bishop Guillory is a sure sign that the parishioners of Sacred Heart-St. Mary must continue our work in a unified effort to provide for the pastoral needs of its members and the neighboring community.