For those who don’t know what they are looking for, there may be some confusion when trying to find Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish on Kinnickinnic Avenue in St. Francis.

However, once they find what they are looking for, they will be greeted by a group of lay people who are well-versed in the liturgy and take a lot of responsibility when it comes to leading the parish, according to Fr. Arul Ponnaiyan, who is in his second year as the pastor at Sacred Heart. They also write petitions and organize the devotional practices.

“There is great lay leadership in this parish,” he said.

The parish has a unique setup in that it is attached to a senior apartment complex, and it is not allowed to put up any signs along Kinnickinnic Avenue. You can barely make out the name of the church on the side of the building facing St. Thomas More High School across the street.

“We are trying to make it more visible to people. We try to do things outside,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said of the parish’s attempts to be more visible. “We have a good number of social outreach programs that are known around the city here. We work with an interfaith group. And then, more on evangelization. On Palm Sunday, we did a procession outside so people could see. We are also planning on doing one for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

Sacred Heart is part of a cluster of six parishes within 3 miles of each other and Fr. Ponnaiyan is the administrator of two of them.

“Before we pastors arrived, we all met with each other and all of the staffs and councils,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said. “We could see that people had no idea how this was going to work or what was going to happen. People were saying some churches were going to be closed. We told them none were going to be closed. We are going to grow and thrive. Now we are trying to collaborate within the two parishes and then with the six parishes. We already share some of the staff. Sacred Heart was a renovation that took a different shape. The apartments have been here since 2012. The church has always been in the same place, it is bigger. We made a bigger community space.”

The parish will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Shortly after Wisconsin became a state, a clearing was made in the forest and a convent was built for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who had come to the area from Bavaria. St. Francis Seminary was built next to the convent in 1855 and the area became known as the village of St. Francis. An orphanage, schools, a chapel, a grotto and a school for the deaf were added to the area, which was to become Sacred Heart Parish territory.

Catholics in the area celebrated Mass on Sundays and Holy Days by traveling to St. John’s Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church or Old St. Mary’s Church in Milwaukee, a distance of 7 to 10 miles. After the chapel was built at the seminary, neighborhood families were invited to worship there.

The church’s official founding date, according the parish’s Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, is Dec. 29, 1868.

Plans for a new church were formulated in 1871 and 3 acres of land were purchased from the seminary. Fr. Zeininger, who later became the rector of St. Francis Seminary and the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was the pastor of Sacred Heart the year the church was built. Bishop Henni blessed the church on May 10, 1872.

Behind the church is a cemetery and the first burial in the land was in 1876.

Fr. Peter Grobschmidt, the first parishioner to be ordained a priest, is buried near the chapel. Former Sacred Heart pastors, Fr. Peter Frieden and Fr. Henry Stemper, are also buried in the cemetery.

By 1885, the parish had 125 families, twice the size of the parish in 1872.

A cornerstone was laid on June 6, 1886, for a new church that could accommodate more than 500 families. Construction of a third building began in 1961.

Fr. Philip Klein served as the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish for more than 50 years, from 1904-56. Before him, the parish had 11 pastors, and in the years since, 12, including Fr. Ponnaiyan. None served longer than Fr. Terry Huebner, whose term was from 1980-96.

The apartments that now share land with the parish were built in 2012 and house many parishioners of Sacred Heart.

Among the ministries Fr. Ponnaiyan is proud to point to in the parish are St. Vincent de Paul and Project Concern.

As perhaps the closest parish to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s main offices at the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center, Fr. Ponnaiyan finds the location to be a blessing in that regard.

“We have a lot of resources close by – it is a good thing,” he said. “I go to the archdiocese offices all the time. I am new to administration, I am still learning, so I go and meet with HR and Finance. It is very helpful. All the priests work closely together. We meet every other week to talk about things and how to collaborate more and how to create a sense of oneness in people.”

Part of that sense of oneness is in how new parishioners and guests are greeted and welcomed when they walk through the doors.

“Sacred Heart is known to be a very welcoming parish with lively music,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said. “What makes Sacred Heart special is that the members know each others’ stories. If a family needs help, there are a lot of other families who reach out to them and help. There is a really close bond among the parish members. We intentionally make sure when a new person comes through the door, they feel welcome. We acknowledge them during the Mass. We give them a welcome packet.”

Fr. Ponnaiyan said his biggest strength is relationship building and that is what he has focused on for the past two years.

“Now I want to create a sense of mission in the parishioners,” he said. “We recently created a new mission statement for both parishes. ‘To be the heart of Jesus, transforming the world’ is Sacred Heart’s new mission statement. I incorporate that message into my homily. So lately, mission has been our main focus. I am also excited about the Amazing Parish conference in October. If you are trying to do something new, you have to make changes, and changes do not always go well. This will give me an opportunity to select new leaders to be with me as a team, to further the mission of the Church. I am super excited about it. I already have some people in mind for both parishes and I am going to put a lot of my energy there. We have been working on improving our stewardship here.”