Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica, Atlanta
Sacred Heart Parish was founded in 1880. The original church,
known as Saints Peter and Paul, was a small wooden building located at the
southwest corner of Marietta and Alexander Streets, twelve blocks west of the
present location. When the area became too commercial, parishioners made plans
to purchase a new site and build a church "at some distance from the business
In 1897, an Atlanta architect, W. T. Downing, was commissioned to
design the new church. In keeping with the then popular devotion to the Sacred
Heart, the name of the church was changed to "The Sacred Heart of Jesus". The
architectural style is basically French Romanesque, with some variations and
On May 13, 1976, the Church of the Sacred Heart was entered in the
National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of its "artistically
Visible in the exterior perspective of the church are repeated
rounded arches, a typical characteristic of Romanesque style. The pattern of
rounded arches is repeated throughout the church interior.
Departing from the usual rock masonry, architect Downing used
pressed brick and terra cotta for the exterior. As you stand at the western
main entrance to the church, and look upward toward the twin octagonal towers,
you can notice how the repeated arches, windows and columns serve both
functionally and artistically to enhance the building's facade. The identical
towers rise one-hundred and thirty-seven feet above street level, and were once
the tallest points of the Peachtree neighborhood.
Between the two towers, a top pediment contains the rose window,
with an emblem of the Sacred Heart as its center. When rays of the setting sun
filter through the rose window, the interior of the church glows in a myriad of
Triple arched doorways provide entrance into the vestibule. Above
the doorways, terra cotta arches frame three stained glass windows, and a terra
cotta lintel, decorated with acanthus leaves, connects the three doors.
The vestibule (or narthex) provides a desirable space transition
from the street to the nave of the church.
Throughout the church, you will notice the names of a number of
Sacred Heart's early families who contributed special gifts to the church.
Above the second set of triple doors, leading from the vestibule
into the church proper, is a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This picture is
a recent addition, and reflects a membership of Hispanic peoples who have moved
into Atlanta and have made Sacred Heart their church of worship.
When you step inside the church, pause a moment to survey the
interior as a whole. A sweep of high arches down the central nave immediately
directs your attention past the triumphal arch to the sanctuary, with its
dominant baldachin displaying a life-sized crucifix. The baldachin serves as a
canopy over the Holy Tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
High above the tabernacle, in the dome of the apse, is a
full-figured painting of Christ manifesting his Sacred Heart. Christ stands on
the globe of earth, and two angels kneel on either side, surrounded by clouds.
Around the curve of the triumphal arch, which separates the nave
from the sanctuary, are five painted symbols. The symbol of Christ as the Lamb
of God is at the topmost point of the arch. The other four symbols represent
the four evangelists: the lion, St. Mark; the eagle, St. John; the bull, St.
Luke; and the man, St. Matthew.
At the gallery level, on the south side of the arch, is the
escutcheon of the Society of Mary; and on the north side, at the gallery level,
is an archdiocesan coat of arms.
Before moving down the nave for a closer look at the sanctuary,
notice the confessionals across the back wall. These confessionals were
elaborately carved from Philippine mahogany, and have been carefully preserved.
The Choir Loft
Halfway down the center aisle, pause again and look back to the
entrance for a good view of the Sacred Heart rose window and the magnificent
The forty-two rank pipe organ, in the choir loft, contains
two-thousand seven-hundred and two individual pipes. Although it has been
rebuilt, the organ retains speaking pipes from the original Hook and Hastings
organ, installed in the church in 1899, and preserved ranks of the 1922 Skinner
organ. It also has a new division of pipes from the Fratelli Rufatti Company of
Above the triple-door entrance is a reproduction of Raphael's
Madonna of the Chair, in a circular frame.
Noteworthy objects in the sanctuary are the brass kneelers, the
sanctuary lamp, two Victorian candelabra flanking the altar, the intricately
detailed brass pulpit, and the central tabernacle. On the door of the
tabernacle is the scene of the Annunciation.
At the top of the baldachin, the Latin form of the Hand of God
issues from the clouds. Three extended digits of the hand represent the Holy
Trinity, and the two closed fingers represent the two-fold nature of the
Son--human and divine.
On either side of the crucifix is a vertical series of six symbols
representing instruments of Christ's Passion. Beginning with the top symbol on
the left, they are: the thirty pieces of silver; the crown of thorns; water
with which Pilate washed his hands; the seamless tunic of Christ for which lots
were cast; hammer, nails and pliers used for nailing Christ to the cross; and
the pillar of the scourging. The six symbols on the right represent: the
ladder, spear and sponge with vinegar which Roman soldiers used to torture
Christ; the cock that crowed with Peter's denial; the INRI, King of the Jews,
sign placed on top of the cross; Veronica's veil with which she wiped the face
of Christ; a mace and halberd of the Roman soldiers; and a chalice and cross
representing the agony in Gethsemane.
The Stained Glass Windows
An outstanding feature of Sacred Heart church is its stained glass
windows. Twenty-eight stained glass windows, from the Mayer studios in Munich,
were installed in the church in 1902. There are fourteen windows along the
walls of the nave, and seven pairs of narrow windows in the curve of the apse,
above the sanctuary.
The seven pairs of windows in the apse have an apparitional theme,
and portray particular miraculous appearances. Directly behind the cross, at
the top of the baldachin, the central pair of windows depict Christ appearing
to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, revealing his Sacred Hert. To the left, the next
pair of windows show the angel of God appearing to Christ as He prayed in the
garden of Gethsemane while His apostles slept. In the second pair to the left
of the Sacred Heart pair of windows, Our Lady and the Christ Child appear to
St. Simon Stock, and present him with the scapular. In the third pair on the
left, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, in front of the sepulchre.
To the right of the Sacred Heart pair of windows, the first two
windows show Our Lady and the Christ Child appearing to St. Dominic,
instructing him in the use of the rosary. The second set shows Christ appearing
before St. Peter, and giving him the keys to the kingdom, in the presence of
James and John. The third pair on the right is thought to portray St. Monica's
vision of a radiant light, which revealed her seventeen-year old son,
Augustine, to her. St. Monica was reassured about her son's future through the
vision, and the visit of the radiant light served as a later inspiration to St.
The Side Aisles and Chapels
The south aisle leads to the chapel of St. Joseph. As well as the
statue of St. Joseph, the chapel contains a free-standing statue of St. Anthony
of Padua, with the Christ Child in his arms. There is also a stand holding
seven-day votive candles, duplicated in the opposite chapel of Our Lady.
Just outside the chapel, in front of the stained glass window of
the Annunciation, is an ornate baptismal fount, which was a gift to the church
in 1901 from a parishioner.
In the vaulting of the side chapels and side aisles, you can
notice a departure from the Romanesque architectural style. The groin vaulting
appears in early Renaissance architecture, and provides a contrast to the
rounded arches of the central nave, which in turn soften the effect of the side
The fourteen windows along the walls of the nave portray episodes
in the life of Christ. Beginning with the window nearest St. Joseph's chapel,
they progress to the rear of the church, and continue down the north side aisle
to the chapel of Our Lady. In order, on the south wall, they are:
The Finding in the Temple
The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Sermon on the Mount
Along the north wall, the episodes depicted are:
Jesus welcoming the children
Jesus washing Peter's feet
The Last Supper
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
Between the fourteen stained glass windows are Stations of the
Cross. The Stations begin in front of Our Lady's chapel, with the Condemnation
of Jesus, and they end, near the chapel of St. Joseph, with Station XIV--Jesus
being laid in the tomb.
The principal statue in the chapel of Our Lady is that of Mary,
Mother of the Church. She stands in a mediatorial position, between heaven and
earth, and crushes the serpent (symbol of evil) underneath her feet. The second
statue in the chapel is that of Jesus manifesting his Sacred Heart.
Small crosses with candles were placed in the church when Sacred
Heart was consecrated, in 1920: eight on the nave walls, and two on the
sanctuary walls. These crosses have a special meaning for Sacred Heart
parishioners, as they represent the continuance of Sacred Heart as a sacred
place for Catholics to worship.
While parishioners take a great deal of pride in the artistic and
historic merit of the Sacred Heart building, the church is much more deeply
significant to them. Its various signs and symbols are immediate pictorial
reminders in matters of the Catholic faith. In the medieval sense of
architectural art, these signs and symbols are also educational. Our prayers
unite with those of generations who have worshipped here before us, and sustain
a link with those who will worship here in the future. United with the daily
offering of the Holy Eucharist, our collective prayers, in a true sense, are
continuously rendered unto God the Father, through the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The relatively new building adjoining the church on the north side
is a three-story wedge-shaped structure, built in 1978. A reception foyer,
parish offices, and parlors occupy the street level floor. Private living
quarters for priests are provided on the top floor, and in the rear sections of
the first two floors. Parish assembly rooms, and two offices, are located on
the ground level floor.
A courtyard between the church and the rectory serves to integrate
the new assembly rooms on the ground level with the parish center located in
the undercroft of the church. The courtyard also provides natural lighting for
the stained glass windows along the north side of the church.