Sacred Heart Cathedral opened its doors in 1896, and installed its renowned Felgemaker organ in 1898. For years the towering Neo-gothic, three-spired brownstone served boom-town Duluthians seeking refuge from noise and industry in the harmonious chords and spiritual sense within its spacious nave.
When it became a parish church in the mid-20th century, Sacred Heart held the center of the Hillside neighborhood together as the re-engineering of Mesaba Avenue and downtown Duluth threatened to destroy the life of the inner city. Sacred Heart quietly served the growing numbers of neighborhood poor showing up at the back door to be fed daily lunches by convent staff, an activity that has now become Duluth’s extensive food bank program, C.H.U.M. When the good sisters at Sacred Heart School started placing sheets after hours on the first floor desks so that nurses of nearby St. Mary’s Hospital could treat the city’s poor, they had started what has today become Duluth’s only free clinic, the Lake Superior Community Health Center. Music and education remained Sacred Heart’s key organizing strategy for community-building during this period. Sister Mary Krista remembers the professional musicians from afar asking to be let into the church after hours to play the famous Felgemaker organ. On Sundays the four-part mixed choir begun in the 1970s brought many to the neighborhood. Indeed it was Sacred Heart’s longtime organist, Joan Conelly, who saved the organ and building from demolition by fighting to buy Sacred Heart for $1 and turning it into the Sacred Heart Music Center.
From its humble one-dollar beginnings, the Sacred Heart Music Center has continued the community-building work of its parish predecessor through its music education programs for at-risk children and its eclectic music programming and performance events. Today, SHMC is acknowledged as a major anchor and social fixture along the main thoroughfare of the Central Hillside neighborhood. To become financially self-sustaining, Sacred Heart has become a sought-after venue for a variety of events, including weddings, receptions, mystery theatre, business meetings, private parties, and teaching space for community residents, organizations, and schools. It hosts 12 to 15 concerts per year, and national and local musicians regularly use its state-of-the-art recording studio.