Sacred Heart is a Jewel in the Heart of Augusta
For many Augustans, the Romanesque spires of Sacred Heart Cultural Center at the corner of 13th and Greene streets serve as a commuting landmark, but most drivers have never ventured inside to discover how special it is.
“Many have driven by it hundreds of times but have never been inside to see what a jewel it is,” said Millie Huff, new director of Sacred Heart. “It still takes my breath away.”
The 120-year-old structure is indeed breathtaking, inside and out. Construction on what was then Sacred Heart Catholic Church began in 1897, with the first service taking place just before Christmas 1900. Built in a Romanesque style with Byzantine influences, it features twin spires, soaring arches, 15 types of brickwork and nearly 100 stained glass windows.
The interior features a sanctuary that brings to mind some of the great cathedrals in Europe. The soaring vaulted ceiling features the original paint. The main altar is intricately carved with life-size statues. Rows of columns line the large main hall, and stained-glass windows shine brilliantly all around, many depicting biblical scenes or honoring saints. The original baptistery is located in the back.
But by the early 1980s, Sacred Heart was anything but grand. It served as a church until 1971, but as people moved to the suburbs, the need for two Catholic churches downtown diminished. Sacred Heart’s parishioners were moved to the Church of the Most Holy Trinity on Telfair Street, leaving an empty building.
“It was vacant and vandalized and was home to pigeons and the homeless,” Huff said.
But then the Peter Knox family, which has a passion for historic preservation, stepped in.
“They recognized what a jewel it is,” Huff said.
After millions of dollars in renovations, including repairs to the stained-glass windows, Sacred Heart reopened in 1987. It was deconsecrated as a Catholic Church and is now known as Sacred Heart Cultural Center.
As a cultural center, it is home to the offices of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, Augusta Ballet, Choral Society, Children’s Chorale, the Augusta Players and the Red Cross.
It is also a popular events venue, especially for weddings. Huff said it hosts about 75 weddings a year and is booked more than a year in advance. The original pews were moved to Most Holy Trinity, so the great hall can be filled with chairs and tables for weddings and other events. It boasts a modern catering kitchen. New lighting was recently added.
“Part of taking care of a 120-year-old building is that we have to modernize and upgrade as things are needed,” Huff said.
But there are drawbacks to the age of the building — it has only one bathroom on the main level.
In addition to weddings, the site has also hosted vow renewals, quinceaneras, the Cotton Ball, the annual Best of Augusta event and even a few funerals.
In the hallways outside the sanctuary, part of the former rectory is used to display work by local artists. The artwork of Karen Banker and Jan Jackson will go on display on July 12.
Sacred Heart puts on its own events, too, to raise funds for the center. The biggest is the annual three-day Garden Festival each April, featuring lush landscape and floral exhibits, speakers, a vendor market and tours of private gardens.
On Sept. 22, Sacred Heart will continue its popular silent movie screening. This year, the feature will be the 1924 Harold Lloyd film Girl Shy. The event has sold out the past few years, so Huff said this year the seating will be expanded.
The annual Gift Shop Open House is planned for Nov. 16.