BURNSVILLE — Open. Welcoming. Like family.
These are the words that members of Sacred Heart Mission in Burnsville repeatedly use to describe their faith community, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Asheville.
There have been Catholics in Yancey County for at least a hundred years, but it has been only 50 years since they have been able to come together to worship in a church built especially for them. It was this milestone that Burnsville Catholics celebrated with thankfulness and fellowship on Aug. 5:
Burnsville Catholics such as Lorraine Whitson, who moved from Detroit with her non-Catholic husband more than three decades ago. Her husband later converted to the faith, thanks in part to the welcoming reception that the "Yankees" received. She's now the mission's pastoral assistant.
Or Chibututu Anazia, who came to Burnsville with her husband Ibezim from Nigeria six years ago. "They're very accepting, and you get very involved," Chibututu said.
Or Ben and Carmela Mandala, who moved to town 40 years ago and owned the local theater for almost as long as they've been members at Sacred Heart. "We're happy to be here all these years," said Carmela.
Or Panfilo Velazquez, with his son Ernesto translating from Spanish, who said, "It's an open church to everybody."
Or Celia Colletta Hoke and her sister Dr. Frances Colletta, two members of one of Sacred Heart's founding families. They've seen many changes over the years at their church, and it makes them proud to see the community as vibrant and faith-filled as ever.
Or Helen and Scott Moore, who have been married 54 years and make a point of talking to everyone at the monthly fellowship luncheons, which are held in the cozy parish hall in the church's basement. "It doesn't matter who you are. Everybody's welcome," Helen said.
Early missionary priests literally built the mission with their own hands. Glenmary Father Francis Schenk designed the church, obtained grants to pay for its construction, and even did some of the construction work himself. He lived in the connecting rectory for several years, and everyone – young and old – still knows his name.
Bishop Vincent Waters came to the area in 1962 to dedicate the humble church, which at the time could seat 110 people.
Fifty years later, it was his successor Bishop Peter J. Jugis who returned to celebrate the anniversary with Father Fred Werth, pastor, and remember Bishop Waters' visit. It was a bilingual Mass – a sign of the mission's growing and changing personality. The church itself, too, was changed: the old rectory had been gutted a few years ago and turned into an additional seating area, and the entire interior was renovated to better showcase the beautiful sanctuary featuring local woodwork in cherry, maple and oak.
"This is the summit of Yancey County," said Bishop Jugis, playing off the address of the church: 20 Summit St. "This is the highest place spiritually of this county, and it's even higher than Mount Mitchell. Here you're even closer to heaven than you could ever be on the highest geographical point" in the area.
That's because the church is where the sacrifice of the Mass is offered, he said: where the people of God receive the Body and Blood of Christ and hear the word of God – sanctifying them in their path toward holiness and strengthening them to serve others.
The church at 20 Summit St. has changed quite a bit over the past five decades. The first Catholics in the region were joined by textile workers and their families from up North, then by retirees from across the country, and more recently by Hispanic Catholics.
Nowadays, the vibrant mission family is active in numerous community efforts: prison ministry, hospice, the local animal shelter, English as a second language classes, and more. But certainly one thing has not changed, members said – the spirit of fellowship.
Long-time member Pat Stefanick, who has three children, six grandchildren and now two great-grandchildren, says Sacred Heart Mission members still have that spirit of camaraderie – the closeness that a small church necessarily has, mixed with a generous dose of caring for each other and their community.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor
Important dates in history
Before 1935 Jesuit Father Louis J. Toups of Hot Springs occasionally came to the area as needed during these early years, saying Mass in the homes of the few local Catholics.
1935 Raleigh Bishop William Hafey directed that the local priest repair a house in Spruce Pine that he had acquired, and set aside one room as a chapel for the celebration of Mass. Three years later, the local priest added to the building with a $10,000 gift from the Catholic Extension Society, and St. Lucien Church was established. St. Lucien remained the nearest church to Burnsville for the next two decades.
May 28, 1944 Record of the first Catholic baby baptized in Burnsville: Mary Lucille Colletta, by Father William J. Higgins. She also received her first Holy Communion from Father Higgins in later years.
Oct. 15, 1948 Bishop Vincent Waters traveled to the area to administer the sacrament of confirmation to Theresa Ruth McIntosh – the first recorded confirmation in Burnsville.
1953-1958 Mass was offered regularly in people's homes in Burnsville and later in the Legion Building.
1959-1962 A chapel was constructed in the Law Building on Town Square in Burnsville.
Sept. 1, 1956 Glenmary Father Francis Schenk was appointed pastor of St. Lucien Church in Spruce Pine, which at that time served Catholics in the three counties of Yancey, Avery and Mitchell.
Aug. 5, 1959 The Diocese of Raleigh purchased 2 acres, at 20 Summit St., from Cecil Angel and his wife Atlas for $4,500.
May 27, 1961 Building permit #127 was issued by the town to begin construction on the church, and ground was broken on the building – a combination church, parish hall and rectory in the Glenmary style. The building and furnishings cost $34,000, with funding coming from the Catholic Extension Society, the Glenmary Missioners and parishioners.
June 17, 1962 Bishop Vincent Waters dedicated the church, assisted by the pastor, Father Schenk, and Father Donald Kapel. There were 28 Catholics in Burnsville at the time: four men, 10 women and 14 children.
1986 Sacred Heart Mission was transferred from the care of St. Lucien Church in Spruce Pine to St. Andrew Church in Mars Hill, and Jesuit priests took over as pastors.
2002 The Diocese of Charlotte took over administration of St. Andrew Church and Sacred Heart Mission, and diocesan priest Father David Brzoska became pastor.
Aug. 5, 2012 For the 50th anniversary of the church's dedication, Bishop Peter Jugis celebrated Mass, assisted by Sacred Heart Mission's pastor, Father Fred Werth.
Pastors assigned to Sacred Heart Mission
1956-1964 Glenmary Father Francis J. Schenk
1964-1966 Father Donald Kaple
1966-1968 Father Paul Acherman
1968-1973 Monsignor Felix R. Kelaher
1973-1976 Father Michael Hoban
1976-1978 Father Gabriel Meehan
1978-1980 Father Henry J. Becker
1980-1982 Father Michael S. Klepacki
1982-1986 Father John Pagel
1986-1997 Jesuit Father Frank Reese
1997-2002 Jesuit Father Edward Ifkovits
2002-2004 Father David Brzoska
2004-2008 Father Adrian Porras
2008-present Father Fred Werth