WARNER ROBINS, GA. - Grey skies and cool morning temperatures did nothing to keep dozens of parishioners, visiting priests, and the recently ordained Bishop of Savannah Stephen D. Parkes making their way outside in front of Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins for the 75th anniversary Mass Sunday, September 27. The Mass was held outdoors to better accommodate what was expected to be a larger crowd with the Bishop coming to town to celebrate Mass at Sacred Heart for the first time. The grounds at Sacred Heart were more than appropriate for a large gathering. Along with more than enough folding chairs placed throughout the grass, there was also room for the church band under the oak tree not far from the entrance.
Students from Sacred Heart Catholic School worked as volunteer ushers, helping visitors find their way to restrooms and distributing programs. The local Knights of Columbus branch, dressed in full regalia, sat guard near the outdoor altar at the edge of the grass. When Bishop Parkes, Sacred Heart pastor Father Stephen Pontzer, Father Tomas Beroch, the parish Parochial Vicar, Msgr. Fred Nijem, Pastor Emeritus, St. Francis Xavier Church, Brunswick, Parochial Vicar Father Christopher Hassell, Diocese of Savannah Chancellor Father Pablo Migone and others processed to the altar the Knights held aloft their swords in their honor. Sacred Heart’s 75th anniversary Mass was anything but an ordinary outdoor service.
“It gives an integrative feel of worship,” said Sacred Heart parishioner Ike Brisbane, who read the second reading of the Mass, Philippians 2:1-5, about the Bishop visiting the parish so soon after being installed and ordained.
“It’s awesome,” said Deacon Ron Simons about having the Bishop in attendance. “There is quite a history we have here at Sacred Heart and it’s really a blessing to have Bishop Parkes celebrating with us.”
“I think we are very privileged and honored to have Bishop Parkes join us today,” said Nijem a half-hour before the Mass began. “I am happy that one of the first parishes he is experiencing is Sacred Heart.”
About meeting the Bishop for the first time, Nijem, a contributing columnist to the Southern Cross said, “I’m impressed with his down to Earth-ness and humility. I have been praying for him every day.”
Parkes was making his first visit to middle Georgia and more specifically Warner Robins and Sacred Heart as Bishop of Savannah and apparently was equally impressed with what he saw at the parish. He began his homily by thanking Father Pontzer “for his gracious invitation” and said about the anniversary, “Today we come to the feast and to this holy table for all that has been, for all that is, and for all that will be here at Sacred Heart. He spoke of Sacred Heart being a mission parish branching off from St. Joseph’s Church, Macon, and that “I believe 15 families attended the first Mass on September 23, 1945. The Pope was Pius XII, and the name given to this community was Sacred Heart, a beautiful name, something to rejoice in so that the people at the time and all of those who would come in the future would be able to see Sacred Heart as an example of living every day.
“Each one of us also has a heart, a heart not only to breathe, to live and function as we walk this Earth, but a heart to be able to give and to be generous.”
Parkes mentioned that Warner Robins, being a military town, was a place a lot of people come to look for a home. “When you move to a new town you seek out a church because that is where we find relationships and community. Bricks and mortar are one thing, but what happens in the bricks and mortar. I can only think of the incredible things that have happened within these walls. They were built not just for shelter from the rain or protection from the sun, but they were built for hearts to find a home. Many have from various cultures and from various places.”
Bishop Parkes, as he is wont to do, repeated his homily in Spanish, further strengthening his outreach to the many Hispanic communities of the diocese and those who may have been watching the Mass via livestream. The Mass included music, readings and prayers in Spanish, as Sacred Heart has a strong Hispanic and Asian parishioner base. The versatility and diversity of the church was something Parkes couldn’t help but notice.
“I don’t come here today to bring silver, gold, frankincense, myrrh or diamonds, sorry Father Stephen, Parkes jokes, “however I do come bringing the gift of the blessed Christ. I ask each one of you to be strengthened in the gift of our faith.”
Father Pontzer also took time to thank all of the parishioners, volunteers, musicians, deacons that helped set up the celebratory Mass, asking everyone to please give them a round of applause for their efforts. “My brothers and sisters, something like this does not just happen,” he said. “It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of worry, a lot of sweat and tears but you can see the abundant fruit it has produced this morning.”
The first Mass at Sacred Heart was celebrated on September 23, 1945. The new church where Mass was celebrated on this day was dedicated March, 3, 2007. John Wagner, a member of the Knights of Columbus, father of Warner Robins Police Department Chief John Wagner, Jr. and the oldest living continuous parishioner was in attendance on both days. He was there Sunday as well, holding the rear church doors for the rest of the Knights as they processed to get into position before the Mass.
During Communion Bishop Parkes, who celebrated service, greeted a boy in a blue shirt and khaki pants. Too young to receive Communion, the boy was ushered to the front of the line by his mother, mask on, hands clasped in prayer formation. Bishop Parkes bent down to bless the boy. The sight of the tall Bishop and the small parishioner was a perfect example of what he said during his homily: All that is and will be of the Diocese of Savannah in one special moment at Sacred Heart Church.