When Sacred Heart School in Danville first opened its doors in September 1953, there were 67 primary school students taught by four Sisters of Mercy from Merion, Pennsylvania, in a Victorian-style house at 344 West Main Street. Danville’s first and only Catholic school, and oldest non-public school, has never closed its doors during the following seven decades.
On Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, Sacred Heart honored its 70th anniversary with a special celebration Mass at 5 p.m., followed by the lighting of an outdoor image of the Madonna, an annual Christmas tradition.
Afterward, a reception in the decorated school gym welcomed more than 150 guests, including former and current students, principals, pastors, parents, teachers, parishioners and administrators from all over the country. The school building was open for visitors to tour, and memorabilia and old photographs were on display.
“I loved hearing everyone’s memories and stories,” said current principal Matt Weatherford, who served as a Eucharistic minister at the Mass. “Every alum I spoke with, whether they graduated recently or 20 years ago – and there were even some who were here when the Sisters of Mercy led the school – said how much the Sacred Heart community means to them.”
Father Anthony Senyah has been pastor of Sacred Heart parish and school since 2021. “I was very happy with the celebration, and I’m grateful to all the people who came together to recognize and celebrate the school,” he said.
“This school is special,” he continued, adding that since the school ends in the eighth grade, students go elsewhere in the community for high school. “The evidence of their good education is obvious, in their comportment and in their work. They’ve been good ambassadors for the school and have made other families aware of this opportunity.”
History of equality
Now called Sacred Heart Catholic School, after adding “Catholic” in 2017, the school has seen many changes over the years. It moved to a newly constructed building in 1966, at 540 Central Blvd., and has built four additions to that facility since then. It now offers education for pre-K and kindergarten, as well as the original grades 1-8, and has 144 students enrolled.
But one thing has not changed: its commitment to high-quality education for anyone who wishes to attend, regardless of background, race, economic status or faith.
Sacred Heart’s former pastor, Father Jonathan Goertz, now pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond, said when he arrived in 2015, he was impressed to learn about the school’s remarkable position in the early 1960s – when the city of Danville was segregated, but Sacred Heart School was not. (Danville’s public schools were integrated in 1969-70.)
He recounted how the Sisters of Mercy and the pastor admitted Black students quietly. By the carriage house behind the school, the Black mothers dropped off and picked up their children, hidden from public view.
One day, when reporters confronted the pastor, Father Carl J. Naro, and asked if there were Black children at the school, he replied, “We have Catholic school students,” and walked away.
“In Danville, the last capital of the Confederacy, there was deep suspicion of anyone who was not white,” Father Goertz said. “But Sacred Heart was a safe haven, and led by example in integration and respect for people of different backgrounds. That’s one of many important things the school has given to the community; it was a prophetic experience.”
Weatherford added: “That’s a phenomenal piece of our history. We are the only school in Danville that has never been segregated, from day one.”
Diversity essential for success
Weatherford, who arrived from the public schools in 2021, said “Sacred Heart is just a wonderful community. It has a lot to offer, but the small class size, excellent academics and especially faith-based education are all integral to what we do.”
Essential to the school’s success – besides “the grace and mercy of our Lord” – is the school’s inclusive message: “If you want to learn, you are welcome here – and that includes everyone,” Weatherford said, noting that Sacred Heart students are white, Black, Hispanic, Latino, Vietnamese and Filipino.
“We have many faiths here [including Judaism, Buddhism and Islam] and everyone walks away with a better understanding of the Catholic faith and a better understanding of each other,” he said. “This is needed in our society today.”
Father Senyah added that the school has been a sign of unity within the Danville community. Sacred Heart parish, founded in 1878, has always been the only Catholic church in the city.
“There are so many other churches in Danville but the respect they have for Sacred Heart Church and School is remarkable,” he said. “The school is diverse in terms of race, and has been from the beginning, and it has a history of being open, welcoming and comforting to anyone. Everyone is loved, cared for and treated equally.”
Founded on families and faith
Father Senyah noted that the dedication of students’ families has had much to do with the school’s success and longevity. In his native Ghana, he said, the government helps to fund most of the Catholic schools to ensure their success.
“But here that’s not the case; it’s the parents, along with help from the diocese,” he said. “They do it with joy and wholeheartedly. It was quite new to me. The community needs to be commended for their support.”
In the past 70 years, more than 15,000 students, faculty and staff have spent time at Sacred Heart School, along with 15 pastors and 12 principals.
Father Senyah said his own faith has been deepened by what he has seen at the school. “I have seen students who have truly embraced the Catholic faith, even some whose parents are from a different faith,” he said. “Their faith is growing in this environment. As a pastor, it has given me courage.”
He added, “These students are loved and respected and they come back after graduating. They just love this school and they participate in Mass. They don’t feel like strangers.”
One of those students who returned is Delaney Sullivan, the school’s development and enrollment specialist and one of the event organizers. She attended Sacred Heart for all of her primary education and returned as an employee two years ago after finishing college.
“This school is where a lot of kids meet their lifelong friends; it’s like a close-knit family,” she said.
“We offer a social, academic and spiritual setting for all students,” said Sulllivan. “We set them up for success in high school and beyond.”
She also noted that community service is important. “Our students are seen out and about in their uniforms, doing volunteer work in the Danville area. People notice that.”
Mary Foley, Sacred Heart’s director of finance, had children at the school from 1999 to 2012. Her son, William, graduated in 2009, and her son, Jack, graduated in 2012. Jack attended the 70-year celebration event as well.
“This is a Blue Ribbon school [recognized for excellence by the Department of Education] and one of the best in the country,” said Foley, who has worked at the school and parish for 21 years. “We have great teachers who hold the kids accountable and teach them how to read deeply and learn content well.”
Sacred Heart students have attended some of the best colleges and universities in the country, Foley noted. “When our students go on to high school and college, their teachers and professors are astounded at their ability to write and take notes,” she said. “It’s holistic learning.”
Father Goertz said that decades of passion and sacrifice on the part of families was remarkable to him. But one other thing that resonated deeply with him during his time there was how often, when walking through the halls, he saw students of all ages helping each other, and teachers giving students extra attention to ensure their success.
“There is a strong ethical foundation at Sacred Heart School,” he said. “This is very important for those students in the years to come. It develops their capacity to make wise choices and navigate the choppy waters of life ahead.”
Weatherford reflected on how Sacred Heart’s early defense of civil rights established the character of the school, an identity that continues to benefit everyone there.
“That really laid the foundation of who we are today,” Weatherford said. “Catholics in general have led the charge in inclusivity and the idea that we have to show dignity and respect to our fellow man no matter how different we are. We are showing Christ’s love.”