Parish History

For many years there were only two Catholic churches in Rock Island, one for those who spoke German (St. Mary’s) and another for the English speakers (St. Joseph’s). But as Rock Island grew towards Moline in the 1890s, another English speaking church was needed.  On July 28, 1898, the Rev. John F. Lockney organized a new congregation called Sacred Heart and purchased a plot of land at the corner of 28th Street and 5th Avenue for $5,500, which included a house on the site. This was the Ben Harper House, one of the oldest homes in the city and a structure nearly as interesting as the church.  The house dates from as early as the 1840s when this area was partof the pioneer village of Farnhamsburg.  An 1857 map shows several large homes on Moline Avenue (as 5th Avenue was called then).  Because of the scale of the map and lack of real addresses, we are not certain of the rectory’s original owner, but believe it to have been John Boyle, a prominent settler, landowner and builder. Before being purchased by the church, other owners used it as a boarding house.

The rectory is built in the Greek Revival-style, popular from 1820 to 1860, although it shares similarities with earlier 18th Century styles, including Georgian and Adam. The window panes surrounding the front door are characteristic of the style. Four chimneys are built into the end walls and the third story windows are covered by ornate grillwork. Sanborn maps show that the porch was enlarged to its present size after 1906.  Today, our rectory is the last remaining example of Greek Revival architecture left in the city of Rock Island.

The new parish sat in the center of a neighborhood known as “Greenbush,” which was filled with Irish Catholics, many of whom worked for the railroads, notably the Rock Island Lines.  Over time one has to wonder if the pastors selected for Sacred Heart were chosen for their ties to the Irish community, what with names like O’Neill, Fitzpatrick, McGinn, Murphy and Cunningham. As with most ethnic neighborhoods, the parish became the center of neighborhood life. The new parish territory included all of the English speaking Catholics between 28th Street and 46th Street - quite a sizable parish territory, which remained intact until the founding of St. Pius X parish in Rock Island in 1960.  St. Pius was seeded by Sacred Heart, whose pastor, Msgr. Thomas Jordan, left to open the new parish.

Father Lockney first built a temporary, small frame church and used it for two years as funds were raised for a new, more permanent structure.  Once it was time to lay the cornerstone, the parochial residence (rectory) had to be raised and moved twenty feet East to have enough room to build the new church. That was quite the feet - especially in those days.

The corner-stone of the new church was laid in May, 1901, and it was an ecumenical event, with representatives of many local churches present. Bishop O’Reilly of Peoria presided over the celebration, which included the Augustana College brass band playing “sacred and patriotic” music. Only a year later, the new church was dedicated and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas morning, 1902. The new church cost “only” $36,000 to build. As a comparison to the value of the dollar and inflation, that was more like $500,000.00 to the early parishioners of Sacred Heart.

The church was designed by local architect George Stauduhar, a prominent designer of churches throughout the Midwest, and the contractor was John Konosky, whose office were very close by at 2828 5 1/2 Avenue. In many ways, the church is typical of Mr. Stauduhar’s style, which is often termed “eclectic,” meaning that he combines a variety of elements into a single building. The steeply pitched roof, pointed arched openings at windows and doors, and the round “rose” windows, as well as the rudimentary flying buttresses are all elements of the Gothic Revival style. The many stained glass windows are original, and imported from Europe.

But a Gothic church would almost certainly have a tall steeple. Stauduhar’s original design called for twin steeples on the north end, with one on the west side reaching 156 feet high and the one on the east reaching 136 feet, but the congregation ran out of money before they could be built. These shorter towers are reminiscent of Romanesque-style churches, which often had similar bell towers beneath shallow pitched roofs. At Sacred Heart, however, the designs never encompassed a belfry.

On the inside, the historic architecture and furnishings are intact, including beamed ceiling arches and richly ornamented pews. Transoms above the three main entry doors have unusual “paisley” shaped jeweled windows incorporated into their relief molding. Even the original Henners pipe organ is regularly maintained and used to this day. The organ was donated by Simon Burns, formerly of Rock Island, who later became a labor leader in the East, as a memorial to his mother, Mrs. Mary Simpson.

There have been some alterations and improvements to Sacred Heart over the years but for the most part it remains intact as it was built.  The front stairs had to be reconfigured when the city widened 5th Avenue, bringing the street right up to the church.  At the same time the small iron-fenced front lawn had to be removed.  Although many churches suffered through changes to their interior in the mid 21st Century Sacred Heart is close to the same way it looked when it was built.  The “Gingerbread Gothic” High Altar and Communion Rail remain, as does the ambo and sedelia.  Necessary additions and modifications have been made to keep up with new needs (including changes in liturgical practice) but the changes have been done so well that they have not detracted from the historic quality of the church.

When the Visitation Sisters came to Rock Island from Maysville, Kentucky in 1898 to establish a new school, they lived for a time on the second floor of the rectory while they cleaned the nearby old Reynolds mansion (also on parish grounds) for their first school.  They remained here for the first two years they were in the area but because of the enormous success of the school they chose to build a larger school and bought property on Ball’s Bluff at the edge of the Highland Park part of Rock Island. This larger school opened in 1901 as the Villa de Chantal.  In a gesture of continuing gratitude many years later when the Villa de Chantal had closed and the property was to be sold, the Sisters gave Sacred Heart a statue of Christ with upraised arms that once stood at the Villa.  As a further link between the parish and the Villa, that statue had been purchased for the community by the Cunningham Family of Rock Island of whom long-term pastor of Sacred Heart, Msgr. Ambrose Cunningham came.  This statue now is mounted in front of our rectory.  We also have a statue of the Sacred Heart from the Sisters private chapel that is located in our sanctuary.  To our knowledge these are two of the only known remaining statues from the Villa still in the area.

In 1923 then-pastor Fr. Fitzpatrick built the school building which for many years served thousands of Catholic children as first Sacred Heart School and later as part of the Jordan Catholic Grade School System.

Already more than a century old, Sacred Heart has weathered its years gracefully. When Sacred Heart has needed a champion, and someone to care for it - God has always provided. This magnificent parish continues to soar high above 5th Avenue because of the love and care it has been shown by dedicated pastors and parishioners.

Learn more about our pastors here!

Sacred Heart, Circa 1902.
Sacred Heart interior, 1902
Early Altar Servers
High Mass, Late 1950's
Nativity Scene, 1960's
Departing Mass, 1950's
Parish Bulletin, 1960's
Fire Communion Class, late 1970's
Circa 1967