📷 L-R: Madlyn Berthiaume, Laura Morrill, Pauline Beaudry and Sue Yvon volunteer at Sacred Heart flea market.
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – The Sacred Heart Flea Market, a longtime staple in Southbridge, will close permanently Monday, Oct. 29. The large multiple-room indoor flea market has operated in a building of the former Saint Jeanne d’Arc parochial school for decades. The community learned less than a week ago that the flea market would close its doors to make room for the new owners of the property. The campus includes parochial school buildings, the former Sacred Heart church and a convent once used by the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, from Nicolet, Quebec.
(Note: A previous version of this article identified the group of nuns who lived at the convent on this property as “Sisters of Nicolet.” The full and official name of the group of nuns that served in Southbridge is updated above).
The campus and all its buildings were first offered for sale in November 2017. The complex had been mostly vacant for many years prior, following the consolidation of Catholic churches and parishes in Southbridge and the closure of Sacred Heart Church. The town had historically supported at least four Catholic churches, each with their own parish name: Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, St. Hedwig’s and Sacred Heart of Jesus. The four were consolidated into a single parish renamed Blessed (now Saint) John Paul II Parish between 2010 and 2011.
That closure was met with sadness from many of the faithful who had considered the church their spiritual home for decades or those who had gone to the parochial school that operated nearby.
Pauline Benoit was a parishioner at Sacred Heart for much of her life and lived near the church in the “flats” section of town. She worked as sacristan at the parish, caring for and keeping the church in good order. She also worked as an altar server and gave communion at mass. For the last several years she worked at a booth on the bottom level of the flea market, selling religious-themed items.
“I loved the church and I was there as much as I was at home,” Benoit says. “That was my second home, working in the parish.”
Benoit now attends Notre Dame church on Main Street, as do many of the former Sacred Heart parishioners who were displaced when the church on Charlton Street closed its doors.
Madelyn Berthiaume helped shoppers at the flea market Saturday, Oct. 27. The weekly flea market has seen considerable business Saturday and Monday mornings, but the parking lot was fuller and the market more bustling than usual after news had spread that this was the last week that the flea market would operate.
Berthiaume volunteers at the flea market along with her sisters Pauline Beaudry and Sue Yvon. Regular visitors to the flea market were familiar with the ladies who answer questions, pack items in newspaper wrap or direct shoppers to items. Laura Morrill joined them and helped to organize the effort.
When Berthiaume was helping to pack up the flea market for closure, she found a few pieces of local history, including copies of two books written by Seaver Rice. Rice was a longtime resident of Southbridge and a World War I veteran. He was active in the Southbridge community and wrote a regular column for The Southbridge Evening News. He was once named “Mr. Southbridge” for his contributions and service to the town. Rice wrote two books: Along the Quinebaug and The Apple Butter Winter and Other New England Tales.
“Seaver would be smiling that his name is in the news again,” Berthiaume says after relating a few stories from Rice’s books. The tales relate acts of generosity among Southbridge residents, a moving vocal performance from a man in tattered clothing and other stories of New England life.
Long-term volunteers Susan Grandone and Jeanne Arsenault were also on hand Saturday. Grandone was the market’s expert in jewelry repair and fine collectibles. Another volunteer said of Arsenault that “her gift is listening to people and hearing their stories.”
Definitive information is not yet available about the buyer of the property or its future use; the property is only publicly listed as under agreement. Some speculate that the property might become apartments or serve other commercial uses. In June 2017, students at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College published a paper which listed possible modern uses for the property. The ambitious plan described a performance hall, restaurant, brewery, greenhouse and bakery, all in operation on the same parcel.
Father Ken Cardinale of Saint John Paul II Parish was at the flea market Saturday as bargain hunters looked for last chance deals and long-time volunteers planned for the closure. Cardinale stopped to reflect on the next stage of parish life and what the property meant to generations of Catholics in Southbridge. He was moved by the decades of community history experienced in the church complex and the loss faced by those who grew up in Sacred Heart Parish.
“My heart goes out to anyone who loved to come here,” he offered. “My heart really breaks at the finality of selling the property and for all the people who are sad about this. It has been an important part of the community and especially the faith community.”
“These are the moments when you need God to bring you through. He’s got a plan to move you forward,” Cardinale added.
The Sacred Heart Flea Market will open for the last time Monday, Oct. 29 at 8:30 a.m. and it will close at its regular time, 1 p.m. There are no immediate plans to relocate and continue the twice-weekly flea market. Items that are left over will be donated to local nonprofits such as The Center of Hope or put into limited storage. Most items will be 50 percent off for the flea market’s final day.