Historic Sacred Heart Church built for Belgian immigrants gets boost from grant

SACRED HEART  —  Founded in 1913 the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was built by Belgian immigrants as they moved to the Valier area.Thanks to grants and donations the church is in the middle of much needed renovations. I-O Photo by Adam Jerome





Submitted to the I-O by Susan Gallagher

The years have taken a toll on the church built near Valier in 1913 for Belgian Catholics immigrating with hopes of a new life in Montana.The roof is worn, water trickled in and the front door is ill fitting.

But now efforts to lift Sacred Heart Church out of its despair are strengthening.Mike Habits and a crew are beginning to replace the roof with further restoration coming as funds allow.

Regular Sunday worship at the church in a swath of farm country known as the Belgian Colony ceased in the 1960s.

A 1979 insurance document used one word, “bad” to summarize the condition of the church built about ten miles east of Valier as Belgians immigrated while World War I loomed.Construction was “good,” said The Catholic Mutual Relief Society.

Recommendations to demolish the historic church faded as a cadre that includes some descendents of the immigrants pressed to keep it.The group strengthened the sides of the building, moved pews and statues into storage and asked diocesan administrators whether it was OK to do more work.Funding for the work was unresolved, however.

The Diocesan Building Committee, including Bishop George Leo Thomas, visited Sacred Heart Church in 2009.

After looking at the building and talking to its proponents. The bishop recommended issuing a $5,000 diocesan grant, with the expectation that matching support would come from the people close to what’s been dubbed the Belgian Church Project.

The grant was a springboard for gifts of cash and labor, said Agnes Fowler, whose grandparents Cyrille and Hortense Ghekiere, left Belgium for the Valier area and farmed there.

“It was so touching that so many (diocesan) people took a sincere interest in coming from Helena to look at this church,” said Fowler, who lives in Conrad and occasionally attended Mass at Sacred Heart Church during her childhood.

To the casual observer with no family ties to the location, the church with a wood frame and exterior, deteriorated white paint and the troublesome door might simply look like “a broken down building,” she said

One of the immigrants, Cornelia M. Flaherty writes, “In 1912 Monsignor Victor Day visited his native Belgium and spoke of the glowing prospects for famers in Montana, especially near Valier where the Valier land and Water Co. had made previously dry lands highly productive through irrigation projects.

With War clouds gathering on the horizon and land becoming scarce, many Belgian farmers listened to him with great interest.”

Not everyone who came brought an agricultural background.Roman and Marie Christiaens, who immigrated with their six children, had operated a combination pub, restaurant and rooming house in Belgium, said their grandson Chris Christiaens of Great Falls.In Montana they learned farming.

“They came in 1912 for the opportunities to make a better life,” said Chris Christiaens, who regularly attended Mass at Sacred Heart during his boyhood and received his First Communion there.

Attendance at Sunday Mass easily numbers 70-80 people said Christiaens, whose family members still were going to Sacred Heart when he left for college in 1958.

Father John Robertson, the diocesan chancellor, said people wishing to save the Belgian Church have expressed a desire for an annual Mass as a time of remembrance.

The church likely would be blessed anew before celebration of its first Mass in many years, he said.Bishop John Carroll blessed the church in 1914.

The hope upon completion is for the church to stand as an operational place for worship and special events.

Although the church has deteriorated, the adjacent cemetery has been maintained, work that is now done by Fowler and other children of immigrant Cyrilla Widhalm.

She was married at the Sacred Heart Church and for decades maintained the cemetery, mowing the grass until at least age 90.She died in 2006 at 94 and is buried there.

Cable work to strengthen the church took place about nine years ago.Fowler said remaining tasks include work on the ceiling and the front door.

All work has been done by volunteers.Fowler anticipates that volunteers will do the remaining work, as well.

She said people steering the project want to schedulework sessions this summer and welcome any contributions of labor or money.

She noted that monetary donations are tax deductable.

Checks made out to the Belgian Colony Church may be mailed to Agnes (Widhalm) Fowler at P.O. Box 640, Conrad, 59425.

Reproduced from the Montana Catholic, Vol. 26, Mo. 1.