A Landmark Church and Center for the Latin Mass in Birmingham
By Gabby Bass, Lilly Carroll, Grace Haulie Johnson, and Sarah Westmoreland
Architectural historian John Schnorrenberg has described Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church as “one of the hidden glories of Birmingham church architecture (Schnorrenberg 2000, 82). It is easy to see why. An elegant Italian Romanesque revival building, its campanile towers over the now-economically-depressed neighborhood. Less flamboyant than Gothic revival buildings such as Birmingham’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, its rose window nonetheless calls to mind landmarks like Notre Dame in Paris. Founded to make Catholic worship more accessible to West End residents, it is now known as the only Catholic church in the Birmingham area approved by the diocese to offer Traditional Latin Mass. While the Latin Mass does makes Blessed Sacrament unique, it is united with all Roman Catholic churches, in the Eucharist even though it uses an older, now less common form.
Blessed Sacrament Church was born from the vision of eleven ladies. In January 1910, these residents of west side of Birmingham formed the Catholic Ladies Club because they found it hard to attend St. Paul’s Church (now cathedral) since it was located about four miles away. They wanted a Catholic church and school closer to their homes.
Bishop Edward Patrick Allen approved their request for the new parish and appointed Father Patrick Turner as its first priest. Fr. Patrick sought out a temporary place to hold mass until construction of the church was finished. On August 7, 1911, the parish’s first mass was held in the Odd Fellows Hall over the West End Drug Store. The hall was filled to capacity with 150 people.
In September 1911, a six-acre tract of land once known as the “Old Tate Place” was purchased. A little white frame church was built on the site and an adjoining Catholic school opened on September 2, 1913. It was affiliated with Catholic University of America and accredited by the Department of Education.
When Fr. Patrick resigned in 1918 to serve as a military chaplain in World War I, Fr. Lawrenece Carroll took his place. In the coming years it became clear that the little white frame church would not be sufficient for the area’s growing number of Catholics. Designs for a new church were commissioned from the firm of John J. Carey and Paul F. Dowling of Mobile. The exterior of the new church was influenced by the Renaissance, while the interior reflected Romanesque simplicity. Some design features of the church were rounded arched openings, rose windows and limestone elements.
In the fifty years after it opened, the church experienced many changes. The 1950s were a period of expansion. Due to the Great Depression and World War II, decoration of the interior had to wait until the 1950s under the leadership of the church’s fourth priest: Fr. George Keyes. Rambusch and Co. of New York provided the decoration of the church including murals and stained-glass windows. The former Tate antebellum home which had previously served as the rectory was no longer in great shape and so in 1959 a new rectory was built that complemented the new exterior of the church.
Soon, however, the church experienced retractions. First the number of women in the Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament, so they withdrew from staffing the school and the parish took over responsibility in 1975. The number of students also declined and on June 1, 1980 Blessed Sacrament Academy/School had to shut down after sixty-seven years.
Throughout the years Blessed Sacrament Church has been a well-known church in the South. It was the first Catholic church in the West End and it has impacted its community greatly. The church was also on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2010 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. The church is currently under the pastorate of Father Jim Booth.
The Catholic Tradition of the Eucharist
The key focus of Blessed Sacrament Church is the celebration of the Eucharist, also known as Holy Mass. In the fourth century, when the Roman emperors began to favor Christianity, Christians appropriated for their churches the form of the Roman basilica: a central nave, longer than it is wide, flanked by colonnades. According to professor and Benedictine monk Kevin Seasoltz this form directs worshiper’s attention to the altar and the Eucharist that is offered there (Seasoltz 117). In subsequent centuries many Christian churches have used this architectural form, including Blessed Sacrament.
In a panel discussion about the Eucharist, hosted by Samford University, the audience heard from Father Justin Ward, vicar of Sacred Liturgy for the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. He shed light on Catholic’s beliefs and traditions. The Eucharist points to the redemption that happened at the cross and the sanctification which sustains us. This can be seen in the wine and the bread, which becomes the body and blood of Christ. In the Catholic tradition, the Eucharist is one of seven sacraments. It is the one for which Blessed Sacrament Church is named. It is the most frequently offered sacrament, occurring multiple times a day in many Catholic churches, and twelve times a week at Blessed Sacrament. Catholics believe that the formula of a sacrament, that is the exact words the priest says, cannot be changed because it is instituted by Christ. Because it is ultimately Christ who acts in the sacraments, they are the re-presentation of a new reality coming into being and their celebration confers grace onto the participants.
One of the key Catholic teachings about Eucharist is transubstantiation. It is commonly misunderstood by outsiders. In order to understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, it is necessary to recognize the word ‘substance’ is used in the Aristotelian meaning of the word. Substance is what makes a thing what it is at a level of essence as opposed to its physicality. Through transubstantiation, the substance of what is initially bread and wine is changed to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Fr. Ward explained that Christians experience of this reality is an act of the intellect. Through faith, Christians perceive the body and blood of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist even though the human senses see and taste them as bread and wine. Because the elements have been changed at the level of substance, Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.
The English word, “Eucharist” is derived from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” Through the celebration of the Mass, the one eternal, redeeming sacrifice of Christ is offered to God. Therefore it is the supreme act of thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, Jesus also feeds himself to his followers through the bread and wine that they have offered. This allows his followers to delight in what God has offered to them.
The Mass has two major parts, the liturgy of the word in which scriptures are read and prayers offered, and the liturgy of the Eucharist itself. At Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist in weekday mass took around ten minutes with the priest praying over the elements at the altar. The congregation itself participated in the prayer offered by the priest while kneeling silently. The altar is in the center of the chapel and all eyes went directly to the altar, as a way to turn their eyes towards God. Once it is consecrated, the congregation receives the Eucharist from the communion rail. This rail is plain, unlike the altar, showing that God is the central figure to be worshipped.
The Significance of the Latin Mass
One unique feature of Blessed Sacrament is that it is the only church in Birmingham where the Mass is still offered in the traditional Latin language. One reason Latin is an appropriate language for the Mass is because it is one of the three languages in which the inscription on the top of Christ’s cross. The ancient Roman Empire spoke Latin, using it in Mass preserves the likeness of the church through history (De Pauw Gommar 1977). Devotees of the old Mass say that they treasure the beauty of the ritual, its links to the church’s past, and what they say is an atmosphere of greater mystery, solemnity, and reverence than they find in the new Mass (Rocca 2021).
Most Catholic churches shifted away from the Traditional Latin Mass because the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) called for the revision of the Mass and for it to be celebrated in the languages people spoke so they could understand and participate more fully. Pope Benedict XVI authorized wide use of the Traditional Latin Mass in 2007. After that the Traditional Latin Mass became a key part of Blessed Sacrament’s ministry because it was a beautiful church with a small congregation. In 2021, Pope Francis reversed the policy of Benedict XVI, saying that the Latin Mass can now only be celebrated on certain occasions and with the explicit approval of the local bishop. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church is one of only three Catholic churches in the Diocese of Birmingham that has been given permission to hold a Latin Mass service by the Central Alabama Bishop Steven Raica: “Since it will contribute to the spiritual good of the faithful, to the extent that it may be needed, a dispensation is granted…in order to continue authorizing the use of the Missale Romanum 1962 on any or all days of the year at the parish church of Blessed Sacrament in Birmingham” (Raica 2021). Blessed Sacrament offers Latin Masses three times a week for those who value the tradition it represents. Offering the Latin Mass has helped preserve the congregation at Blessed Sacrament even when they faced difficulties like the recent pandemic. The testament of God’s faithfulness to this church is clear; it is through rich history and striving that this beautiful and monumental church has become a beacon of light in Birmingham over the years.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church
Location: 1460 Pearson Ave. SW Birmingham, AL 35211
Current Building Opened: 1930
Decoration of Current Building Completed: 1959
Affiliation: Roman Catholic
De Pauw, Gommar A. 1977. The Traditional Latin Roman Catholic Mass. Annotations and Translations. New York: C.T.M. , 1977.
Lody, Joseph. 2009. History of the Diocese of Birmingham. Strasbourg, France: Éditions du Signe.
Raica, Steven John. 2021 “Decree Promulgating Norms For The Local Implementation Of The Motu Proprio Of Pope Francis. Traditionis Custodes.” July 28, 2021. https://www.bhmdiocese.org/documents/2021/7/20210729 Norms Implementing Traditionis custodes Birmingham.pdf.
Rocca, Francis X. “The Power of the Latin Mass.” The Wall Street Journal. September 09, 2021. Accessed September 29, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-power-of-the-latin-mass-11631199405.
Seasoltz, Kevin. 2015. “The Christian Church Building.” In Transcending Architecture : Contemporary Views on Sacred Space. 113-129. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.
Gabby Bass ‘23, Lilly Carroll ‘25, Grace Haulie Johnson ‘23, and Sarah Westmoreland ‘23 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2021.
Published November 29, 2021