As the Kountze Place neighborhood filled in with homes it needed more churches. Developer Herman Kountze knew he would help his investment property’s prestige by offering lots to a Catholic parish to build a new church. This is a history of the Sacred Heart Catholic parish in North Omaha.
Establishing the Parish
Sacred Heart was established in 1890 as a suburban parish at North 26th and Sprague Streets to serve the Saratoga neighborhood. The first pastor, Father John T. Smith, served there for five years. Located in a low area, the church was notoriously damp. According to one account, “in wet weather one required either a boat or hip waders to reach the church.”
In 1897, the second priest, Father Patrick J. Judge, moved the building to North 24th and Binney Streets in the Kountze Place neighborhood. Working to secure usage of his land for the prestigious 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, Kountze donated the land to the church in exchange for their commitment to build a church there that cost at least $8,000, which was a lot of money then. His bid worked and the event was held in his neighborhood. Three years later in 1902, architects Fischer and Lawrie designed the Gothic Revival style building that stands today.
When construction on the church was finished, the old wooden church building was reused as a parish hall and clubhouse with a playground built behind it. Eventually, the Sacred Heart compound included the church, parish hall, clubhouse, rectory, grade school, high school, and grotto.
Renowned Omaha architects George Fisher and Harry Lawrie designed the new Late Gothic Revival style church. Similar to English gothic churches from the Middle Ages, it has rough stone walls, long windows with beautiful designs in the glass, and details etched in the limestone trim. The massive ceiling has a slate roof at a steep pitch, and the church tower is 124 feet tall. Built in the shape of a cross, the church has a rounded section over the altar with hand-painted scenes and frescoes in the sanctuary. The side chapel in the church has the original altar from the first parish in Nebraska, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was located at 8th and Howard Streets.
According to Matt Holland, son of early DePorres Club leader Denny Holland, in 1948 the club held a community conversation with African Americans who attested to the Kountze Place’s race restrictive covenant. Given that it was their neighborhood, nearly every Sacred Heart parish member signed this covenant to ensure white supremacy in the community. There was no blatant resistance to the covenant from within or outside the parish, either. Segregation in the parish and neighborhood didn’t recede until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The parish became briefly integrated when African Americans were allowed to join the church and attend the school. However, within a decade the Kountze Place neighborhood was predominantly Black, and there were signs of the church closing. The Omaha diocese made it an open parish so people from across Omaha could attend, and Sacred Heart stayed open.
The church was listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and named an official Omaha Landmark in 1983.
During the 1980s, the parish stabilized again and began to thrive.
According to Leo Biga, in 2012 the congregation completed $3million in renovations to the church in six months. The roof and gutters, the floors and the heating system were all replaced. A new foundation was laid, and the church’s first air conditioning system was installed. A baptismal font was built, and the chapel was restored. All of the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork were restored as well, including the pews and confessionals.
As white flight has closed several other parishes in North Omaha, many of them have been merged into Sacred Heart over the years, including the Holy Angels parish in 1983.
Many notable Omahans have attended Sacred Heart, including politician John E. Reagan, businessman John McCreary
Sacred Heart School
For more than a century, educating children has been an important part of the Sacred Heart parish ministry. Opened for students in the surrounding Kountze Place neighborhood in 1904, the parish school has served students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
A lawn “fete” that first year drew 2,500 attendees with ice cream, a “lemonade well,” and a cake table. More than $800 in donations were secured, which allowed the construction of a single new wooden building. Two new brick buildings were constructed in 1928.
Early in the school’s existence, the Mother General of the Sacred Heart Order visited Omaha’s Catholic schools from her Paris headquarters. According to one report, when she found eight Jewish students attending the Sacred Heart School she immediately ordered their expulsion. That church’s congregation was upset though, with a member writing, “We only have the friendliest feeling for the Jewish children. We would do nothing to encourage any act of discrimination against them and we wish it fully understood that neither the local Catholics nor clergy have had anything to do with the order of exclusion.” However, apparently nothing was done to stop the order and the students were sent to local public schools.
“We only have the friendliest feeling for the Jewish children. We would do nothing to encourage any act of discrimination against them and we wish it fully understood that neither the local Catholics nor clergy have had anything to do with the order of exclusion.”—An anonymous member of the Sacred Heart Catholic Parish, quoted here
In addition to the grade school, the parish originally operated Sacred Heart High School for students in grades 9 through 12. It was closed in 1968. The Sacred Heart High School building was destroyed by a fire in 1984.
For more than 60 years, Sacred Heart School was for white students only, with Black Catholic students being compelled to attend St. Benedict School, built by the Omaha diocese as one of the city’s two formally segregated schools. In 1948, the DePorres Club made waves in Omaha by holding a community talk with African American Robert Hollins, whose daughter was refused access to the white-only Sacred Heart High School. The practice largely didn’t change until the 1968 Fair Housing Act was passed, ushering in integration at the Sacred Heart parish.
In 1969, an influx of new attendees from the surrounding neighborhood boosted enrollment. In the 1970s, the school switched from being a parish school to becoming a community outreach program. In 1971, the Omaha World-Herald seemingly mocked the school for using “Lift Every Voice” as its anthem, “a logical choice for a school where Negroes outnumber white children 4 to 1.” Cost saving has been a hallmark of the school since then, and today there is financial aid for many students who attend.
Serving students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, today there is one class for each grade level and class sizes are kept below 18 students per room intentionally. Students from across the city attend the school.
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- “Sacred Heart Catholic Church,” Wikipedia article
- “History,” official Sacred Heart School website