Sacred Heart Catholic Church


For over 168 years, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, one of the oldest in the region, has ministered from one spot in Canton along E. Center Street lined with a variety of architectural styles reflecting trends from 1835 to 1940.

The current sanctuary is the third and an oustanding example of Romanesque Revival architecture, embellished with brightly colored terra cotta tile, rounded arched windows, brick corbelling, and a gabled parapet.

Father Mike O’Brien served as the parish priest more than 30 years ago, but recently returned for a second stint at the storied church.

In its earliest days, this community held Mass in their homes in the Sulphur Springs area of Madison County. Erected and consecrated in 1859, a small brick church was established, marking the first generation of Sacred Heart Parish. 

The church now standing was built in 1928. Looking at the magnificent stained glass windows of Sacred Heart, one can see a detailed history of the people who’ve worshiped in the church. Names denote prominent families who are now a part of the church’s history. 

German names begin the tradition, followed by Italian and Irish. These were the families to settle Canton at the time. In the early 1900s, the Lebanese arrived . 

The current wave of influential families are the African-American and Hispanic communities who have most recently arrived. 

The church’s architecture is heavily influenced by Roman and Greek styles, most clearly seen in the arches and heavy use of ceramic. According to O’Brien, this would be what a typical church would’ve looked like in Europe back in the old days. 

Symbols of Christian tradition can be seen throughout the hallowed halls. 

“The rings on the front door represent water: you enter the church through the waters of baptism,” said O’Brien. “We’re a very symbolic church. We have symbols everywhere! The green ceramic paired with the waves in the wood could represent Moses’s Nile.” 

Human hearts are painted throughout the church too, symbolizing the theme of love throughout the Bible. “Because Jesus was so loving, tradition says you could see his heart,” said O’Brien. 

O’Brien recalled a tradition of Irish ministers serving in Mississippi. Currently, he is one of only two left in the state. 

Sacred Heart was O’Brien’s first parish in 1983 and his enthusiasm was undaunted by the long journey from home. “It was an adventure,” he said. “We had to get used to the climate and driving on the wrong side of the road.” 

O’Brien recognized the difference that the Catholic church has undergone since Vatican II, particularly the effect the council had on Sacred Heart. Much like Canton has changed since O’Brien’s first appointment, the Catholic church has undergone change too. 

The transition from primarily using Latin to utilizing native languages and translations for official documents can be clearly seen in the Mass given in Spanish at Sacred Heart. “Let’s worship God in the local languages,” O’Brien said. 

Sacred Heart has a large following of congregates from Honduras and Guatemala. The tradition of celebrating the Virgin Mary is very important to them, and so they celebrate the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year before Christmas. A big procession goes down the streets of Canton, carrying the picture of Mary. “They pray and sing as they go,” said O’Brien. 

O’Brien has also witnessed change in the new emphasis on fellowship in the Catholic church’s culture. Sacred Heart’s altar used to stand against the wall with the angels standing above it. Now, the new altar has come down so that the pastor can stand behind the altar to look at his congregation. 

“In the old days, they weren’t thinking about connection and visibility,” he said. “Back in the sixties, you didn’t talk in church. You came to church to listen and pray. These days, we are trying to balance reverence with fellowship.” 

In that same vein, O’Brien has witnessed change in Canton’s culture. He was there when the Canton churches began to make in-roads into bringing communities together. “Canton has come a long way as far as race is concerned. I see white kids and black kids playing together. You wouldn’t have seen that 30 years ago. We’ve come a long way.”

“I won’t say we’re proud of our church,” said O’Brien, “because it’s not about being proud. But we love our church. We love the history of it. It connects us with our ancestors, who came here from different places and made the sacrifices necessary to build this church back during the Depression.”

In its third incarnation, this parish holds onto its historic ideals while making room for new ideas. “We should be ministers of reconciliation, of God’s love, of ecumenicity,” said O’Brien. The history of Sacred Heart, the oldest Catholic church in Madison County, lives on in its spirit of fellowship and reverence both.