Sacred Heart of Jesus marks 150 years serving Baltimore immigrants

Sacred Heart of Jesus / Sagrado Corazón de Jesús June 5, 2023. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

From its beginning 150 years ago, when it served as the home for recently arrived German newcomers to its status today as the largest parish for Spanish-speaking immigrants, Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in Highlandtown has been a refuge for Catholic immigrants.

New faces show up at the Redemptorist parish on Conkling Street every Sunday for Mass, especially seeking Spanish-speaking priests, longtime parishioner Ana Ramírez said.

“This is a church of immigrants,” said Ramírez, who serves as president of the Ladies Auxiliary of Perpetual Help along with her husband Grand Knight of Columbus José Guillermo Ramírez of the St. John Neumann Council.

The Knights of Columbus welcome people at the doors, she said, and if there is someone in need of something, the Knights take the matter to the priest so they are helped by the right ministry.

Among those serving immigrants, there are seven ministries that show a strong presence by celebrating their culture in faith; the Dominican Republic, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Peruvian and Salvadoran committees.

“I’m part of the Dominican Republic committee and we celebrate Our Lady of Altagracia,” she noted. “Each committee has its feast day and celebrates its patron saint, a devotion from their home country.”
Redemptorist Father Ako Walker, who has served the parish as pastor since 2021, said each country in the Hispanic community brings aspects of their culture to Sacred Heart, “making the  parish rich in diversity and unity.”

“Even in adversity, people come together,” Father Walker said. “Certain social issues don’t have a national border. What affects one of them, affects the entire community.”

He said new arriving families make their way to Sacred Heart of Jesus and its mission community of St. Patrick in Fells Point. In a discreet way, these committees come together to advocate for these families, whether that is paying their rent or buying food for a few months, until the family settles.

As of 2023, the Hispanic population encompasses 95 to 97 percent of the parish with approximately 2,500 registered families, which includes parishioners from St. Patrick.

Three of those committees and hundreds of Hispanic parishioners were transferred to the parish in 2011, when St. Michael the Archangel in Upper Fells Point closed.

“The population at St. Michael needed a bigger church, and the population at Sacred Heart had decreased to the point it had to be merged,” said Redemptorist Father Gerard “Jerry” Knapp, a son of the parish who was the rector and pastor of Sacred Heart (2008-11).

A new bilingual pastor was appointed and Sacred Heart of Jesus became Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.

Ironically, Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded as a mission parish of St. Michael in 1873, and a German-speaking Redemptorist priest would commute to minister to German immigrant families settling in Highlandtown.

Father Knapp, a German American who grew up in the parish during the 1950s and ’60s and is a fourth-generation parishioner, said breweries and butcher shops were the German immigrant families’ main sources of income. He recalled fun summer days at the stands and rides of the seven-days-long parish carnival.

“Looking back, my favorite thing was the community spirit, how we all looked out and cared for fellow parishioners, who were also our neighbors,” he said. 
Father Knapp said Sacred Heart excelled at parish ministry, as there was a ministry appealing to every person and every group would participate in the carnival.

All the funds would go to the welfare of his former Sacred Heart School, which was led by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, serving grades K-8 from 1876 to 1974. The school later became Bishop Neumann School. Today, Archbishop Borders Catholic School, a bilingual school, operates in the same building.

Father Knapp said “it was the (Redemptorist) men in the rectory” who had a powerful influence in his priestly vocation.

“I wanted to help people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, as my forerunners had helped me,” he said.

Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a year full of celebrations, including an opening Mass, the traditional parish carnival, a eucharistic procession through the streets and a food fair.

June 20, 2023 By Priscila González de Doran
Special to the Catholic Review –