An Honor Bestowed

March 16-22, 2006
An Honor Bestowed
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Plans Special Anniversary Mass

Nestled in a Polish-American neighborhood on the west side of Syracuse, Sacred Heart Parish and its parishioners haven’t forgotten the day they learned that it had been designated as a basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1999. Pastor Father Peter Gleba and his parishioners were ecstatic and grateful. “It changed everything,” explained Father Gleba. “We were being acknowledged from Rome for our church’s history and all the things that have happened at the church. I could have screamed for joy.”

In remembrance of Pope John Paul II, Sacred Heart Basilica plans to hold a special Mass on April 2 to commemorate the first anniversary of his death. The homily will focus on the pope, acknowledging how he made Sacred Heart Church a minor basilica. The Mass will also include special prayers and a procession.

Granting the title “basilica” is a special papal recognition for churches that have played an important role in the proclamation of the Gospel message in the liturgy and the life of its members. The decree was issued from the Holy See on Aug. 27, 1998. The declaration became official on Oct. 3, 1999.

As a minor basilica, Sacred Heart is a church that has been granted special honors and privileges. If the pope were to come to Syracuse, he would visit Sacred Heart Basilica. The church is ready for him. The parishioners have prepared a special chair in the sanctuary for him to sit on. The chair measures 67 inches high and is constructed of American red oak. Also, a marble statue of the likeness of Pope John Paul II and weighing over 3,000 pounds is in the works. When completed, the statue will be placed in front of the church.

Bishop James Moynihan, in his letter of congratulations, said, “The granting of this title ‘basilica’ is a testimony from Rome, Italy, to the faith of the Polish-American communities in our diocese. It is in our Catholic faith that we find unity and our common mission. May the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus be a place of blessings and faith to all who enter here to pray.”

Father Gleba said that Sacred Heart Basilica is the “mother church” and the oldest of the nine Polish churches in the area. He also said that the church’s Easter weekend is something that makes it stand out among other churches. “We’re the only church that has the Mount Calvary, crosses, instruments and a tomb on the altar which is decorated with a scene of Jerusalem with all its homes,” said Father Gleba. “It’s something beautiful to see. The altar looks out of this world with all the flowers and lilies placed on it. And, on Holy Saturday, we have the ‘blessing of the food’ in church.” Polish tradition plays a significant part in worship at the Basilica. Serving a bilingual congregation, a Polish Mass (Gorzkie Zale) is offered each Sunday, and one of the four choirs at the basilica performs in the Polish language.

Lifetime parishioner Barbara Kowal enjoys being a part of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. Indispensable to the life of the church, Kowal has volunteered for the last seven years in one way or another. “I feel very comfortable here,” Kowal remarked. “We have four Masses here every day, seven days a week. Five days of the week, after the last morning Mass, the parishioners recite the rosary. On Thursdays, the parishioners do the Liturgy of the Hours instead of the rosary. Saturday, before afternoon Mass, the parishioners are here one half hour early, reciting the rosary. We offer the Novena Mass on Thursdays. Presently, we have the Stations of the Cross twice a week — on Wednesdays and Fridays. “Our church is the pope’s church in Syracuse,” Kowal said. “On the pope’s last trip to the States before he became pope, he stopped to visit Sacred Heart Church. He drove from Detroit to Syracuse.”

At that time, Kowal was in charge of the Altar & Rosary Society and she got a call from the pastor, telling her to arrange for all the parishioners to gather at the church because the cardinal was on his way to the church. “We got a lot of people to come,” said Kowal. “It was a nice, sunny day and people were standing in front of the church and in the park across the street. The cardinal came down Park Ave. standing up in a convertible.”

Bishop Joseph O’Keefe and Father Gleba were instrumental in obtaining basilica status for Sacred Heart Church. Bishop O’Keefe regularly attended the Polish Christmas meal at Sacred Heart. Noticing how beautiful the Gothic church was, he suggested to Father Gleba that he should try to make the church a basilica. After Father Gleba asked him what he needed to do to get the process started, Bishop O’Keefe said, “I will get you all the papers and I will back everything up.” Father Gleba completed the paperwork and sent it, along with some pictures and slides of the church, to Rome. “We got a response back, saying that for the time being, there would be no granting of titles for minor basilicas,” said Father Gleba. “Bishop O’Keefe told me to not give up— that they were going to keep everything on hold.”

Soon after, Father Gleba visited the Chancery to check on the progress of the filing for the basilica status. He then discovered that Sacred Heart had just received the honor of minor basilica. Sacred Heart has grown tremendously over the last 112 years. Today, its parishioners have a basilica they are proud of. Everyone is welcome to visit the diocese’s only basilica.

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