Sacred Heart Parish was established in December, 1877 with 12 families.
Locally, the parish is the spiritual descendant of Father Juan Crespi, a Spanish priest who accompanied the first group of Europeans into what is now San Benito County.
Not a man for staying safely behind, Father Crespi accompanied 13 Spanish soldiers, their captain and a lone Indian from Monterey to the San Benito River on the first day of spring, 1772, a day rich with significance in the soul’s awakening.
He named the river St. Benedict, (“San Benito” in Spanish).
When Father Crespi died in 1781, his last rites were performed by a much-loved friend who was buried beside him less than three years later. He was Father Junipero Serra, the legendary father-president of the California missions.
The priests of the mission carried the work of God on faithfully, baptizing, praying for, marrying and officiating at the last rites of generations of parishioners.
In 1868, after waves of Civil war veterans and their families had washed into California, Hollister sold part of his holdings to the San Justo Homestead Association. Its members subdivided and sold 171 farm sites but reserved one for a town which, on Nov. 19, 1868, was divided into lots.
Father Cipriano Rubio of San Juan Parish attended to the spiritual needs of Hollister’s Catholics, with many of them traveling to the mission, but almost from the first he celebrated Mass in Hollister “at regular intervals in various private houses.”
On Feb. 25, 1873, Father Rubio acquired a plot of land through the offices of F.J. Breen from James Hodges and Hollister who either donated it outright or asked only a token sum. Gratified at the spirit of them and other members of his parish, Father Rubio began construction of a church soon after.
Father Rubio had been toiling at the Hollister mission church all the while, even though his means were modest. Although not able to finish the interior, he provided it with pews, altars and love. Father Valentin Closa of Mission San Juan succeeded Father Rubio and continued in charge of the mission church until December of 1877 when it became an independent parish with Father Hugh McNamee appointed as resident pastor.
Certainly, his was not the typical parish. Gunfire was often heard in its streets, and the depredations and execution of Tiburcio Vasquez were still vivid in the memories of the residents.
We know that under his management the rectory was completed in 1878 and that he finished the work in the interior of the church. Within three months of his arrival, he bought four acres of land two miles east of town from James M. Jones for $360 as a site for the parish burial ground.
He left Hollister May 3, 1880 to become parish priest of the cathedral in Los Angeles, succeeded by Father M.W. Mahoney who had just served 12 years in Watsonville. The Hollister Advance in its issue of May 6 said of Father McNamee: “He has made many friends here, not only amongst his congregation, but among the whole community.”
Under his guidance, Sacred Heart Church was off to a good beginning but beginnings mean little unless the work is carried through.
Father Mahoney recognized this face and ministered conscientiously to his growing flock. There were many calls to make, many babies to baptize and many hearts heavy with the cares of the world.
After nearly nine years, he was assigned elsewhere and Father Bernard S. Smyth became pastor in January, 1889. Father Mahoney died in Castroville on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, in 1901, a tireless soldier of his Church until the end.
Father Smyth’s arrival in Hollister coincided with an increase in the town’s prosperity, and he seized the opportunity. One of his first acts as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish was to have the land that Father McNamee had bought surveyed and converted into a respectable burial ground, Calvary Cemetery.
On Aug. 8, 1891, four Sisters of Charity under the direction of Sister Aurelia Walker opened a boarding and day school in what had been Florence College.
As the enrollment flowered, more Sisters were needed to operate it. In 1899, the building was thoroughly renovated and enlarged to accommodate a greater number of boarders.
As the century ended, there were 147 children in attendance.
Courses began with the first grade and continued to the point where “young ladies were prepared for and where several had passed successfully the teachers’ examinations and were, in fact, teaching on the certificates thus obtained.”
In 1892, Father Bernard was gratified to see the construction of the church in Tres Pinos. He helped to plan it, furnish it, bless it and liquidate its debt.
Father John assisted in Hollister and Tres Pinos as well as Hollister’s other station, the New Idria Mines, as the Catholic population grew. Until Tres Pinos became an independent parish, Immaculate Conception, in April, 1904, one of the Hollister priests said Mass there every Sunday.
On Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, the Sisters of the convent were up early as usual, preparing for morning prayers. As the hands of the clock moved to 5:15, an ominous rumble rattled the building. For a second or so, the Sisters looked at each other wildly, then another temblor hit, and a child screamed from the upstairs dormitory.
Without a thought for their own safety, the Sisters ran to the stairway even as the building plunged and bucked like a living thing while great clouds of plaster dust engulfed them.
A tremendous crash as the convent was hurled five feet to the ground threw them against the staircase which was suddenly strewn with broken beams. But the terrified screams from a dozen young throats kept them going up the ragged stairs.
The Sisters, several with blood issuing from noses that had been bumped against the wall, virtually clambered over piles of broken plaster and into the dormitory.
The children ran to meet them, wailing in fear, and the Sisters hugged them in joy for their safety, then began the treacherous way down.
Minutes later as distraught parents were trying to pick their way through the wreckage, someone yelled: “Look!” Six plaster-white apparitions had suddenly appeared at the doorway, leading the children out to safety.
In May of the following year, Father Bernard bade farewell to the parish he had served so long and well. There were tears in many eyes, including his, as he talked with his flock for the last time.
On May 18, 1907, Father Patrick Brady succeeded Father Bernard. He inherited a church that was thriving and a school of 100 students, 83 day pupils and 17 boarders.
He served the parish for nearly 11 ½ years until Father Patrick Hassett became pastor on Oct. 17, 1918. Not quite four weeks later, Father Hassett was in the pulpit to lead his flock in thanks for the cessation of World War I, the war that was to have ended all wars.
Father Hassett was a moving force in the community and the parishioners took his example. During his pastorate, Sacred Heart’s societies flourished. There were nearly 500 members active in the Children of Mary, Holy Name Society, Sacred Heart League, Holy Angels and Altar Society.
In 1924, as one of his last services for the parish, he oversaw a much-needed cleaning and improvement of the cemetery. Then, after six years as pastor, he was assigned other duties.
Father Patrick O’Connor became spiritual leader of the parish on Nov. 23, 1924. A joke then current had a member of the parish saying in a broad Irish accent: “Faith, we’ve had three Patricks in under seven years time. Why don’t we rename it St. Patrick’s and have done with it?”
Father Daniel J. Keenan arrived here as pastor on June 21, 1929, with his work cut out for him: more than he could have realized with the nation rushing toward the worst depression in its history.
Parishioners who, in normal times, could have been expected to give freely were worried about holding their jobs and caring for their families. The new President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had promised that prosperity was just around the corner but that corner took a long time in turning.
If Father Keenan was discouraged, he tried not to show it. He had the work of God to attend to even if the problems of man continued to plague him. He carried on valiantly for seven years until Sept. 5, 1936. When Father Patrick O’Reilly succeeded him as pastor. It was the day before Father O’Reilly’s 39th birthday.
Father O’Reilly took stock of the situation immediately. On the positive side, he noted that the parish had ample land and good convent. However, the school, rectory, church and cemetery were in poor condition. Worse, many of the parishioners were disheartened and divided.
In February, 1939, Hollister paid $20,000 for the property. The parish moved the church and rectory to its present site and renovated both.
It was the biggest moving job Hollister had ever seen. The rectory was moved first, then the church was literally cut into two parts, of 250 tons and 300 tons. The smaller portion was moved next, then the larger one, and they were re-assembled at the church’s present site. The project, including renovation, took three months.
In 1940, the Maryknoll Sisters of San Juan Bautista, extended their instructional service to Hollister. That same year, the Catholic Ladies’ Aid Society observed its golden anniversary, and mothers of the parish formed a club to help the school.
The war years took their toll in lives and human misery. Many times, Father O’Reilly or an assistant would hurry over to console a bereft family. Many more times, he would take time out from his mounting schedule to talk with a serviceman who had stopped by to ask his blessing before leaving for a foreign battlefield. Often, he would pray with distraught parishioners despairing over their relatives sill in the embattled countries.
In June of 1947, Father O’Reilly observed his 25th year in the priesthood, more than 10 of them having been spent in the Hollister parish. He received the congratulations of his flock and many non-Catholics of the community.
His slight, energetic figure was a familiar one on the city’s streets, and his Irish brogue, whether in greeting, Mass or consolation, was an endearing sound to many.
It began when the horse-drawn carriage was the predominant form of travel and during its history has seen Man taking the first steps across the threshold of space. It has suffered loss from war and natural disasters, and has withstood economic depression and, yes, even division within itself.
But it has known joy, consolation and the exultant triumph of the human spirit over adversity and sorrow. The pastors and priests who have guided us have differed in background and capabilities but they have shared one trait: the willingness to minister to their flock’s spiritual need for our Church and our God.
As we stride into the second century of our parish, we pray that the parishioners of 100 years from now can look back at us and say, as we can of those a century ago: “They were worthy of their faith.”