Sacred Heart serves thousands in Houston area

Sun News correspondentSeptember 25, 2013 

Monsignor Fred Nijem has been the priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Warner Robins for 23 years.

MICHAEL W. PANNELL — Special to The Sun News

  • Sacred Heart Catholic Church

    Address: 251 South Davis Drive, Warner Robins
    Phone: 478-923-0124
    Leadership: Monsignor Fred Nijem, pastor
    Mass in English: Saturday Vigil 5 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m., Daily Mass Monday-Friday 9 a.m.
    Mass in Spanish: Sunday 2 p.m.
    Website: www.sacredheartwr.org

WARNER ROBINS -- Sacred Heart Catholic Church has grown with Warner Robins and now serves some 1,600 Roman Catholic households.

Church documents say before moving into a sanctuary on South Davis Drive in 1945, masses were held in USO facilities with boards and stacked Coca-Cola crates for an altar.

Sacred Heart’s pastor of 23 years, Monsignor Fred Nijem, said the early facility seated a little less than 200. The parish outgrew it and built a 400-seat worship sanctuary in 1964.

“We outgrew that building and in 1990 started meeting in the gymnasium for 14 years until we were finally able to build our current building in 2007. It seats around 1,200. All three structures remain in use in one way or another today.”

A major event in Sacred Heart’s history was establishing a school through eighth grade in 1955.

“The present school building dates from just after 1955,” Nijem said. “Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from County Cork, Ireland staffed the school at the start, and members of the order served until about 2003. Since then it’s had an all lay faculty.”

Nijem said at one point the school had 200-plus students but has declined in recent years to around 160, probably due to the economy and perceived quality of local public schools.

“I’m proud of our Sacred Heart students,” he said. “I say without reservation they’ve excelled in every area of faith and academic development. I’m proud of the quality education Sacred Heart has consistently offered families. We believe in and support Catholic education and give about 10 percent of our annual income toward scholarships.”

Nijem said through the years Sacred Heart has grown its Christian Services Center ministry for those in need. He said it also receives about 10 percent of the church’s offerings. He said other community churches, civic groups and individuals also support the outreach.

“It’s an outreach to the poor and needy Sacred Heart had before I came here,” he said. “It offers food, clothing and assistance with medical, rental and utility bills. I know we give close to $100,000 to it a year.”

Nijem said the church’s newest facility has been a joy to parishioners, though it was a long time coming due to the unexpected economic downturn along the way.

He said the building’s main purpose is well served.

“The new building meant more space, but something else it meant was we could bring our worship space into alignment with the vision and principles of the Second Vatican Council for worship,” Nijem said. “That means it was built for the active participation of the worshipers.”

Nijem said the active participation of worshipers in all areas of church life has been a highlight for him at Sacred Heart.

“I’d have to say that the extraordinary generosity and commitment of people here in this parish has been striking,” he said. “They’ve always offered their ministry and their financial support to the church’s agenda and the goals of the parish and school. There’s been a steady and enduring commitment from the people. God knows who they are, but I have just been astounded at their faithfulness.”

Nijem, 71, said his tenure at the church is longer than normal for pastoral stays at a Roman Catholic congregation.

“Being in a parish as long as I’ve been here has given me the privilege of watching children grow up,” he said. “I’ve seen children I’ve baptized grow up, watched couples marry and mature. On the down side, I’ve also seen the passing of a number of people who I’ve became very close to over the years. It’s a pleasure to be involved and see people’s growth and development long-term -- being able to follow their progress, their lives.”

Nijem said he’s been pleased to see Sacred Heart’s growth not only in numbers but in diversity.

”We’re known for the ethnic diversity among our parishioners,” he said. “I’ve witnessed overall growth plus the growth of parishioners in the Hispanic and Asian communities. Twenty year ago I established a coordinator for Hispanic ministries, and it has grown from services once a quarter to once a month to now weekly Spanish-speaking services.”

A native of Valdosta, Nijem’s preparation for priesthood included attending Saint Bernard’s Seminary in Cullman, Ala., Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Valdosta State College, and Loyola Graduate School of Education in Baltimore. He has both his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Sacred Theology degrees from Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

He has served predominantly in Georgia ministries and churches. He was ordained in 1968 and came to Sacred Heart from Albany in 1991.

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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