Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Monday, August 7, 2000

Albany Just three years ago the future of Sacred Heart church looked grim.

For a century after it was built in 1876, the church, at 31 Walter St., was the spiritual anchor of North Albany's Irish-American community. But the neighborhood became more ethnically diverse, parishioners grew old and died, and no one replaced them. The church's school closed in the 1970s, when the children who grew up there moved to the suburbs. With the students gone, the convent soon shut its doors. By the late '90s, the church didn't even have a priest. The pillars supporting the vaulted Gothic ceiling of the red-brick church were sturdy, but the social pillars had crumbled.

Then in 1997, Albany Diocese's sesquicentennial year, the diocese forgave $3 million owed by poor parishes for insurance and property maintenance.

Impoverished Catholic parishes around the country will also get a reprieve this year, thanks to an ancient biblical commandment that calls for a year of emancipation and restoration every half-century.

In July, Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law liberated parishes from $28 million owed to the archdiocese, following the lead of Pope John Paul II, who has called upon Western nations to provide relief for nations shackled by debt in this Jubilee year.

The move also reflects a national effort to address the growing gulf between rich, mostly suburban churches, and poorer, mostly urban churches.

``This is a community that is rather poor and elderly,'' said Deacon Bill Gorman. ``The people who built this church have either gone to the great reward or moved away.''

Now with $112,000 in debt washed away, Sacred Heart has reinvented itself: Where it once had a handful of families attending mass, now 400 parishioners fill the pews on Sundays.

The dramatic turnaround can be traced to a vibrant community center in the church's once-dank and musty basement, paid for with money that would have gone to pay off the debt. The church built a gleaming, stainless steel professional kitchen that would not look out of place in a small hotel. The center is a beehive of activity, hosting senior dinners, a food pantry, Sunday school and a free lunch program.

``Last month we cooked 401 meals,'' said Sister Sara Kirsch, coordinator of social services at Sacred Heart. ``We couldn't have done that before. All we had was a little gas stove and some counters.'' Kirsch said the community center helped place Sacred Heart back at the center of North Albany life. ``The forgiveness of the debt kept us going,'' she said. ``If we still had all that debt hanging over us we wouldn't be able to do all this.''

But more than the physical improvements to the church, Gorman said debt relief helps remind Catholics everywhere what the very name of their faith implies universality and mutual responsibility. ``The biggest thing it does is it lets people know they are part of a greater community. It's a spiritual connection.''

The Rev. John J. Rooney, who served as a priest at Sacred Heart for more than 30 years, said the psychological burden of debt for a parish is tremendous.

``When a parish is overwhelmed by its financial responsibilities, it demoralizes them and dissipates their energy. Erasing debt gives people a sense of hope.''