BRIGHT FUTURE FOR SACRED HEART: How 4 Guys Turned a Church Around

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ALL SPRUCED UP, Sacred Heart upgrades have resulted in many more weddings, baptisms.

KEEPING THE FAITH! Brian Donnelly, Tom Betteridge, John Demshuck and Mike Connell founded the Sacred Heart of Jesus Men’s Club, to save their church, located at 3rd & Reed Streets in South Phila.

BY RORY McGLASSON/
New Sacred Heart of Jesus pastor Robert Feeney jokes about how he used to visit the 3rd Street church with a miner’s hat on his head.
So dark was the aged building’s interior, Father Feeney says he was barely able to see down the aisle.
However, today residents are walking in the church amazed by the light. Not just in a spiritual sense either. Long-time residents are walking in and breaking down in tears of joy because the church has had a makeover.
That’s because there is new lighting, and a heavy lick of paint here, there and everywhere … the church has been transformed.
“Thanks to parishioners like ours, Sacred Heart is on its way back,” said Feeney, who was officially inducted as pastor on Jul. 24.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Church is located at 3rd & Reed Streets. It was founded in December 1871.
The “miracle workers,” as Father Feeney calls them, are four regular South Philadelphia guys. Four guys who simply love their parish.
Tom Betteridge, Mike Connell, John Demshuck and Brian Donnelly are not your average church-going family men. They have been on a three-year mission to save their church.
In 2007, the Sacred Heart was in a serious state of disrepair. Couples would not be seen dead getting married inside. But now, thanks to these four guys – and help in the neighborhood – the church is shining as brightly as ever.
Betteridge, 44, went to a stewardship conference at Archbishop Wood in Northeast Philadelphia in 2007, and came back with an idea to form a Men’s Club.
He spelled out his idea to fellow parishioners and days later, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Men’s Club was born. Its founders are Betteridge, an electrician, Connell, a caterer, Demshuck, a former school administrator and Donnelly, a funeral-home owner.
If they do not know them by name, residents will have seen them around the church in their blue-collar shirts, bustling around at their tasks.
Not a spare minute passes in the day that these four do not devote to their parish.
“We simply wanted everyone to know how proud we are to be a part of Sacred Heart,” Connell said.
These four set a good example. Quickly the Men’s Club grew into what are now 100 members – half of them active, Betteridge says. Among notable members are State Rep. Bill Keller and IBEW Local 98 Business Mgr. John Dougherty.
“People were starving for an organization like ours to get things going,” Connell said.
The group began a campaign known in the archdiocese as “The Future of the Faith Campaign.” IBEW Local 98 donated new green lighting to replace the dim old lights in the church. These new lights save the church $300 per month.
Every penny counts, considering the church has debts in excess of $70,000, according to pastor Feeney. A local scaffolding company has donated $100,000 worth of equipment. Cement Masons former head Mike Fera donated money for the floor in the basement.
One thing led to another. Donnelly recalled, “The new lighting shone on the fact the place needed cleaning from top to bottom. That’s when we realized how dirty it was.”
In November 2007, the Club kicked off its paint campaign.
Donnelly’s funeral home paid for the Blessed Mother altar to get painted.
Then Connelly kicked in funds donated by his catering company to repaint what he calls the “Joseph section.” It was donated in memory of his relative, Sue Vruzek.
The four men would stand in the back of church during mass, dressed in paint overalls, to collect donations. Dollar by dollar, penny by penny, the funds began to mount.
“Things just seemed to snowball from there,” Betteridge said.
Betteridge is the leader and brainchild behind the Future of Faith Campaign. It is hard to see how the full-time electrician, mentor, and father of four girls fits everything into his schedule. His phone has the ringtone “Speed of Light” by British rock band Coldplay – apt music for him, since Betteridge seems to move around quite literally at the speed of light, so busy is schedule.
He has so many projects on the go at the parish, he says it can sometimes annoy his boss at his day job.
“Sometimes I have so many phone calls, my boss shakes his head. But he knows I serve a higher power,” Betteridge says.
The brand-new paint job inside the church is not the only program under way.
Plans are in place to upgrade the sisters’ convent. Eight Sisters live there in wretched conditions. The entire property must be gutted. The Men’s Club is seeking donations of any size toward this project. Betteridge said for only $500, each Sister’s room can be completely renovated and donors can have their names put on the wall. Betteridge wants to eventually upgrade the rectory.
Also, thanks to donations from local labor leaders, a spanking-new community center should be ready for opening in January 2011. Work is underway in the basement, thanks to local electricians who volunteer their time to help their church.
“It’s a collective effort,” says Betteridge, who lives at Front & McKean with his wife and four daughters. He spends most his spare time at the church, friends say.
The Sacred Heart group has now finished 75% of the painting upgrades in the entire church.
Young lovers are coming back to the church to wed. Funeral services have doubled, and more people are returning to the pews, because of the work of the handyman parishioners.
They have a couple of sections left to do, however. The choir loft still needs work and the altar mural must be redone.
“We need an artist,” said Betteridge.
The mural of the high altar is based on the Gospel of Luke (12:49) and the Book of Revelations.
The mural originally began in 1945 and was finished during its celebration of the parish jubilee. The Men’s Club wants to find a mural artist to come and touch it up.
“We have the supplies; we just need the expertise,” Betteridge said.
Sister Mary Paula Beierschmitt, IHM, founder of the American Academy of the Sacred Arts in South Philadelphia, said she would look at the mural and see if she could find a qualified painter. Sister Beierschmitt resides in St. Monica’s Parish.
“People keep asking us, when are you guys going to fix the mural?” Donnelly says.
“That shows how excited people are when they come to the church today. That’s what it is all about for us, creating buzz in the parish.”
Donnelly said, “When you get the old girl at the back of church with the fuzzy slippers sitting there in tears, because she cannot believe what we have done to the church, it makes it all worth it.”

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5 Responses to BRIGHT FUTURE FOR SACRED HEART: How 4 Guys Turned a Church Around

  1. I was born and raised in So. Philly. I went to Sacred Heart Church and School. I have a picture of the church from your cards you at one time sold. I now have lived in CA for 32 years and come back to visit family every few years.
    I will certainly visit the church on my next trip.
    Isn’t it great what God can do?

    Lynn Fetterolf
    August 7, 2010 at 1:51 pm

  2. Im laughing my behind off as I read along this article. Mr. Betterbridge and Mr. Donnelly do all the talking and bullshit and get all the credit. Do they honestly get their hands dirty doing work???? Up close and personal Not what I was told. Mr. Bettrbridge is noted for running his mouth and that is what is good at. A Local BS artist. I wonder how come in the article it doesnt state how Betterbridge tries to do things his way without asking for proper permission. Im sure some in the mens club know what Im talking about. I laugh when I read they are working in the convent. Knowing how long and still waiting for the community center to get finished and open, this new game in the convent will take forever. Right from the famous BS Artist! Poor Fr. Feeney, the BS artists have him under control. He joined the bandwagon. Wait and see for himself, what they are really like.
    I hope he sees it before its too late.

    Joe Abate
    August 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

  3. Dear Mr. Abate,
    It saddens me to read your response dated August 15th in which you sound off about Tom Betteridge and Brian Donnelly. These are only two of the men who have sacrificed many hours of their personal and family time for the betterment of our Church community here at Sacred Heart. I can personally attest to the time they have given not only to our parish but as our school community as well.
    Having been raised in this parish, gone to Sacred Heart School and returned after 30 years in my religious community to serve here as Principal, I commend these men and all those who have used their time and talent to make God’s dwelling what it should be. The Men’s Club along with many other generous benefactors have reclaimed their parish once again and I commend their efforts.
    I am happy to say that repairs are going well in the convent. Three areas of the convent have been completed and the men are presently working on our chapel where the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary pray daily for our parishioners as well as our benefactors. The Sisters are deeply grateful for these much needed improvements in our convent.
    Instead of criticism, Mr. Abate, perhaps you can offer your time and talent to this most worthy cause and join those who have made a positive contribution to their Church community. God loves a cheerful giver!

    Sr. Patricia Maureen, IHM
    August 15, 2010 at 10:08 pm

  4. To Mr Joe Abate,
    You should be laughing at yourself you are writing without knowing anything that you speak of. Are you even a member of Sacred Heart ? I have never seen you at Any Sacred Heart Function.There shoud be more people willing to step up instead of running there mouth. Mr Betteridge helped with many things with school and church. It is sad that there are so many people that, like you run there mouth and talk down on good people.As for Mr Donnelly I have seen all the donations that this man has given. Who ever “TOLD” you your information should come and get there hands dirty along side of thouse two men and all the others !! To Mr Betteridge keep up the good work !!! To Mr Donnelly other Funeral Directors in that parish should be half as caring and devoted as you !!!! God Bless The Sacred Heart Mens Club !!! Sir You are a sad individual for even signing your name

    Kamryn Ryan
    August 16, 2010 at 6:58 pm

  5. So here’s what I do know…Father Robert Feeney is a treasure! God Bless Sacred Heart and all parishioners who are so very blessed to share in his vision of greatness and passionate spirit!
    “Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.”
    w.bennis

    Jeani Catalano Grady
    December 22, 2010 at 3:01 am

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