Sacred Heart Celebrates Pastor’s Birthday and Opening of New Fellowship Hall

Bruce Migliore, Scott Dueser, John Connolly, Domingo Perez, Gail Waldmann, Paul Slabaugh, Armando Tamez, Ron and Mary Lou Sipe, Johnny and Lydia Rose, Larry and Pat Johnson, Angie Craghead, Dan and Grettal Cottner, John and Sylvia Herrera, Rick Martinez, Sr., Carl and Mary Migliore, Leah Parrish and Family

Msgr. Bob Bush, Msgr. James Bridges, Msgr. Bernard Gully, Very Rev. Santiago Udayar, Rev. Mark Woodruff

By Loretta Fulton

Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, was a day that the Rev. Albert Ezeanya will remember for the rest of his life.

It was his 48th birthday and the date for the dedication of a new fellowship hall at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which he has led since July 2019. The timing couldn’t have been better. Bishop Michael Sis of the Diocese of San Angelo presided over the dedication and led the large gathering in singing “Happy Birthday” to their priest. Joining via WhatsApp were Ezeanya’s mother and sister, who are temporarily living in Houston. The family is from Nigeria, where Ezeanya was born on Dec. 14, 1974.

“We had a wonderful day today,” Sis told them. 

Indeed, it was a wonderful day, beginning with a Mass at 5:30 p.m. in the historic church. After the Mass, the congregation joined together in the new fellowship hall, built next to the church, for a dinner, two cakes (one for the birthday and one for the dedication), and a celebration. 

Music, laughter, prayers, recollections, and versions of  “Congratulations, job well done,” filled the massive space as a project almost 30 years in the making made its debut. Longtime members of the church, who had talked about the new facility for years, finally had a grand opening to celebrate. 

“We just kept on hoping and wishing,” said Mary Lou Sipe, whose husband, Ron, helped design the original concept for the fellowship hall. 

Fundraising for the fellowship hall started in 1994 but the project never got off the ground until in recent years. The priest at the time, the Rev. Mark Woodruff, now is pastor at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Junction and Sacred Heart Parish in Menard.

The Rev. Albert Ezeanya, left, and Bishop Michael Sis celebrate the opening of a new fellowship hall at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where Ezeanya is the pastor. Photo by Loretta Fulton

The new fellowship hall replaces the original one located in the basement of the church, which opened in April 1931.The old parish hall had only one toilet for men and one for women and was accessible only by stairs. Mary Devanney, a member of the building committee and a church member for 17 years, said the limitations in the old parish hall meant that a lot of people couldn’t attend functions. And, the old kitchen was small and had outdated appliances.

“We just needed something bigger and more accommodating,” Devanney said. 

Gail Waldmann, a member of the first building committee more than 30 years ago and the more recent committee, has been in a wheelchair the past year and a half. For another year and a half before that, she had trouble walking, especially up and down stairs.

“I haven’t been able to fellowship with them for three years,” she said.

Waldmann has been a member of Sacred Heart since 1951 and now will be able to join her friends for all the events that will be held in the new hall.

“I think everyone is very pleased,” Waldmann said.

Members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, led by Rev. Albert Ezeanya, celebrated the opening of a new fellowship hall on Dec. 14. Photo by Loretta Fulton

That includes the architect for the building, Brent Lobstein. He isn’t a member of Sacred Heart but is friends with Johnny Rose and his wife, Lydia, who are members. Rose, who works for Bradshaw Engineering, served as a non-voting member of the building committee. Lobstein designed the building and Rose oversaw the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical design and installation. 

Lobstein, 41, grew up in Coleman but remembered playing in the streets around the church when visiting his grandmother. He was only a kid when church members first started trying to raise money for the fellowship hall. It took so long that he grew up to be the architect who designed it.

“I’m happy they’re able to use it,” he said. 

The building alone cost $1.3 million, with an additional million-plus needed for the kitchen appliances and sound system. Members had to raise half the funds before construction could begin. The other half was borrowed from the church and must be repaid. Fundraising continues for that effort. 

Two cakes were enjoyed by members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Dec. 14. One was to celebrate the 48th birthday of the pastor, Rev. Albert Ezeanya, and the other to mark the opening of a new parish hall. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Leading the fundraising campaign was Scott Dueser, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of First Financial Bankshares. Dueser is a member of Abilene’s Holy Family Catholic Church but loves Sacred Heart for its architectural beauty and its diverse congregation, which includes many refugees who have been resettled in Abilene through the local office of the International Rescue Committee. Refugees first began to arrive in Abilene in early 2004, and since then many have become a vital part of the community. Sacred Heart is the spiritual home for many of them. Dueser applauded the refugees and other members for enriching each other’s lives. 

“They all work together so well,” Dueser said.” It shows what the church is all about.”

Dueser was asked by Sacred Heart’s pastor to lead the campaign. About $700,000 was needed to get the project off the ground. Dueser issued a challenge grant and sent appeal letters to potential donors, including members of his home church, Holy Family.

A Texas Historical Commission marker tells the history of Sacred Heart Catholic church, which opened in April 1931.

The effort paid off, and there was much to celebrate on Dec. 14. The fellowship hall, which was built next to the church, is multi-functional, with plans ranging from youth retreats to monthly Masses designed especially for older people who have trouble accessing the historic church, especially if they are wheelchair-bound. 

Those Masses are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month, beginning in February. Both the men’s and women’s restrooms in the new hall include showers that can be used by people attending retreats or other overnight events. 

Groundbreaking for the new fellowship hall was held on Jan. 15, 2021, almost two years ago. The builders were delayed by supply chain issues brought on by the COVID pandemic, weather, and other factors, but on Dec. 14, all that was forgotten–and a prayer offered by the bishop at the groundbreaking ceremony was answered.

During the groundbreaking, Bishop Sis recited a prayer that is read during the ordination ceremony for a new priest. The prayer, Sis said, also applies to the members and friends of Sacred Heart who have worked for years to raise the money for a new parish hall.

“May God who has begun this work in you,” the bishop said, “bring it to fulfillment.”

Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene

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