A true phoenix from the ashes: The Sacred Heart Music Center

Click here for more information about the Duluth music scene. A small wooden church once stood on the corner of Second Avenue West and Fourth Street in downtown Duluth. Today, this same intersection hosts one of the largest cathedrals in the city. Through renovations and restorations spanning over 140 years, that small wooden church has been transformed into the Sacred Heart Music Center.

Sacred Heart cathedral, now used primarily as a music hall, stands out prominently against the Duluth skyline. Photo Credit: Lisa Mattson.

Built in 1870, the original Sacred Heart church burned down after standing for only 22 years. Just six years later, a magnificent brownstone cathedral rose from the ashes of the modest church. An organ with 1,493 pipes completed the makeover. Sacred Heart served as Duluth’s cathedral until the 1950s when those functions were moved to the Holy Rosary parish. Sacred Heart remained an active church until 1985, when the Duluth Diocese decided to shut it down. The congregation was set to join with St. Mary’s Star of the Sea. The cathedral would be torn down in the merge. But Joan Connolly, the organ player at Sacred Heart for more than 50 years, was not going to let that happen.

“I couldn’t bear the idea of the organ being dismantled and moved someplace else,” Connolly said in an interview with North Life magazine. “Once you take it out of the original space, it just isn’t ever the same.”

Connolly and other loyal members of the community banded together to form a non-profit organization devoted to not only keeping Sacred Heart standing, but remodeling it into the beautiful building that it is today.

Sacred Heart is no longer an active church. Now it is used primarily as a concert hall. In 1995, a new board of directors was installed and the building is still run by the non-profit group. All of the improvements and restorations that have gone into Sacred Heart have either been paid for by renting the space out, grants from the National Register of Historic Places, or they have been done by the volunteers themselves.

Mike Schultz is one of these volunteers. Schultz is a retired electrical engineer who lives near the building. He has been doing projects at Sacred Heart for two years.

“I came to a Low concert here and started looking at the lights thinking, ‘Man someone ought to fix those.’ Then I thought, ‘Gee, I’ll volunteer.’”

Fixing the chandeliers was one of the first of many projects Schultz has taken on.

“It’s just a hobby. I come here on my own time,” Schultz said. “When I want to, I’ll come down and work on something. Or not.”

While much of the original structure of the church is still intact, there have been some changes due to aesthetics or functionality. Where the pews once were is now a big open area with movable chairs and tables to fit the event at hand. Minor repairs have been done to the stained glass windows, the floor and heating system have both been replaced, and bathrooms were added. But one of the most impressive features of the original Sacred Heart is still standing—the Felgemaker pipe organ.

A small brass plaque on the front of it reads: “Funds for organ repair donated in memory of Morris J. Opsahl—1979”; another piece of evidence that shows the dedication from the community to preserve the building.

“It wouldn’t be useful outside of here,” Schultz said. “The building is the speaker box for the organ.”

The organ still gets played several times a year, depending on the concerts. Schultz proved the magnificence of the instrument.

“You ever hear the expression, ‘Pulling out all the stops’?” he nearly shouted as he fiddled with knobs and pedals and the rich sound of almost 1,500 pipes filled the cathedral.

Typical volunteer work consists of handing out programs, selling tickets at the door, selling concessions for concerts, or painting. But few people have donated as much time or energy as Schultz.

“People over the years have done more ambitious projects,” he said. “Now they have either moved on or burned out. But there’s always little projects we can use people to help with.”

With performance seating for 400 and banquet seating for 200, Sacred Heart accommodates weddings, receptions, parties, art shows, and CD releases as well as concerts. It also houses a nationally renowned recording studio.

“It’s a great space for anything acoustic,” said Schultz. “Most of the groups we get are regional. Sometimes we get people up from the Twin Cities because the sound is so good.”

Though most of the groups are local, Sacred Heart has seen more nationally known acts, including Charlie Parr, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Vienna Boys Choir, Low and Trampled by Turtles. The Crash Test Dummies not only recorded their album at Sacred Heart, but also a high-definition music video.

Crash Test Dummies Perform at the Sacred Heart Music Center

Live performance by Crash Test Dummies, recorded October 12, 2005, at Sacred Heart Church in Duluth, Minn. Video Credit: HDNet, who broadcasted the show.

As volunteers and board members come and go, Schultz doesn’t plan on leaving Sacred Heart any time soon.

“I love the music,” he said. “They’ll call me when something craps out, so yeah, I foresee I’ll be here awhile.”

While Sacred Heart has come a long way since it’s inception, both in structure and purpose, there is always something else on the project radar.

“We’re looking to replace the roof next,” said Schultz. “The old bells are still there. They need some work. There’s no end to the list of things to do.”

As long as there are tasks and renovations to be done, the need for volunteers also remains. While each person’s contribution to Sacred Heart and their reasons behind it may be different, the underlying goal of preserving the building, as well as the sense of community it brings, is the same.

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