Phoenix’s oldest Hispanic church comes full circle
The lifeblood of the church is the fact that it caters to the Hispanic community. The immigrants are going there, and that’s what will keep it alive.
A small army of cinnamon-skinned children kicked up dirt as they marched through the unpaved roads to the only Catholic church in town.
And like an army, they approached the desert parish stoically, outfitted with white shirts, short pants, and clean boots. They had prepared for this day weeks ago under an old mesquite tree, and they knew exactly what they had to say and exactly what they had to do.
Children of Mexican immigrants, they expected to receive their First Communion with the rest of the children who were members of St. Mary’s. But precisely because they were children of Mexican immigrants, they were sent to the church’s basement while a separate ceremony was held above them for the children of Caucasians.
It was 1919, and it was the last straw.
Their own church
Hispanics mostly accepted the place they were given in society, but it was harder for them to accept the place they were given in the church. They brought their Catholic faith with them from Mexico, where their lives were largely centered on family and church.
The church taught them that God loved them all equally. St. Mary’s taught them something else.
Mexican parishioners were confined to the dark belly of the church, where Sunday services, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and First Communions were held. There were no services in Spanish, and they missed the Mexican music and pageantry that was part of the church back home.
So they decided to build their own church, a Hispanic church, the first such church in the Valley. Wealthy Mexican families and the Tucson diocese donated land and money, while others sold tamales and held dances and picnics to raise money to build the church at 909 East Washington Street. Would-be parishioners designed the building and did most of the construction work.
Finally, on December 16, 1928, the church, a school, and a parochial house were dedicated, and the Valley’s Mexican community had a home.
Today the church, set among commercial buildings and buzzing traffic, attracts almost 5,000 worshipers every Sunday to six Spanish-language Masses. It is still the church of choice for many Hispanic families and the largest Hispanic church in Phoenix.
But 76 years into its existence, Immaculate Heart is at a crossroads. Recent Hispanic immigrants are challenging long-time families for control of the church. There has been a slow exodus of parishioners over the past few years as the church has struggled to put behind a suspicious fire that damaged the main building and a controversial priest who was asked to leave. The church has been getting along with a temporary priest and is seeking a permanent replacement.
For many at Immaculate Heart, the future is uncertain. The only thing they know for sure is that their beloved church won’t stay the same.
Photo by Kelley Karnes Immaculate Heart of Mary, at 909 East Washington Street, towers above a busy Phoenix street. Parishioners say it’s the church of choice for Valley Latinos.
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, things began to change. Immigrants began replacing the old families, who either died off or moved to other areas of town and other churches. No official numbers exist on how many parishioners are immigrants and how many are American-born, but the shift was clear to everyone.
The church “serviced first and second generation and third generation [Hispanics], and now you have a complete wave of new immigrants into Arizona, a new set of immigrants,” said Ray Escobar, 57, a parishioner whose family helped create Immaculate Heart.
It’s a phenomena happening at many traditionally Hispanic churches and institutions in the United States, said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Studies of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “We’re hitting a real point when they [immigrants] become the majority over the people who are running things, then you hit a real moment of transition and sometimes you’re in conflict,” he said.
Church leaders and parishioners don’t like to use the word conflict, but they do say sometimes it feels like their language and similar last names are the only things they have in common with the new immigrants filling the pews.
Immigrants like Rene Pineda.
Pineda, 30, arrived at Immaculate Heart seven years ago when he first came to Phoenix from Acapulco, Mexico. The parish was recommended because of the many Spanish services and large Mexican congregation. “This is a famous place for Hispanics,” he said. “Everyone knows about this church.”
Sunday’s overflow of worshippers would seem to prove so. Young families, single mothers, young men in cowboy boots, and old women wearing traditional veils all pass through Immaculate Heart’s doors.
Only about 1,000 are registered in the church, but 5,000 to 6,000 attend Mass at one of the seven Masses offered each Sunday. About 80 children are baptized, and five quincineras are held at the church each month.
Photo by Kelley Karnes A volunteer and parishioner serves up carne asada after a service. Every Sunday, parishioners gather to sell Mexican food and snacks along with religious trinkets.
The quincineras—the traditional Mexican coming out ceremonies for young girls—are just one of the traditions that make Immaculate Heart unique.
During an early morning service, parishioners tuck folded notebook paper carrying special requests into the arms or around the feet of statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations.
A few pews away, a young Hispanic couple gently place a baby Jesus figurine at the foot of the main alter. Before they could sit back down, a few parishioners gathered around the couple complimenting them for the beautiful cherub-looking Jesus they found. Then they take turns kneeling before the plastic figure and praying in Spanish.
As the day progresses, more parishioners place their saints and figures of baby Jesus at the foot of the alter, careful to compliment a near-by family’s saint before admiring their own.
“It really reminds us of Mexico. We can pray like we did, we can speak our own language,” said Rigoberto Gomez, a Mexican native who recently came to Phoenix. “The other churches are formal.”
The old Latino families didn’t mind newcomers, especially those from a familiar background. But once the numbers swelled beyond theirs, doubt in the new Latinos’ commitment to the church settled in. It’s something they still battle today.
American born parishioner, Encarnacion V. Hernandez, 78, witnessed the increase in immigrants. He said that along with the turmoil of the fire and priest changes made parishioners bitter of the new arrivals. Though Hernandez welcomed them, he said, others were quick to point out flaws and stereotype out of bitterness: They take cuts in line for Holy Communion, they don’t speak English, they’re on welfare, there have too many kids.
Hernandez said it’s slowly changing. Older members have taken some immigrants under their wings. He also sees hope in the new population—they’re keeping it alive.
Hernandez’s son Anthony Hernandez, 37, was in his late teens, early 20s when he started noticing the congregation’s transition. He also noticed the embittered long-time families. “There will always be a natural resistance to change,” said Anthony, a third-generation parishioner who is still active in the church.
“They’re newcomers and you really don’t know what they’re about. You don’t know if they’re going to be participative or are they just going to sit back and let you come to them.”
“They come and bring in all their statutes and their saints. They feel comfortable here,” he said. “The symbolism is very important for the Latinos. People have so many beliefs; everybody wants to bring their own saints.”
Reyes, a Franciscan priest, has been at Immaculate Heart for a year now, but will leave once a permanent replace is found next year. Parishioners hope the new priest will be able to hold the church together—to make a place for the new immigrants while retaining the old.
Many of them say the immigrants are needed, that they are breathing life into the historic parish.
“It’s been imbedded into our minds that this church is for the Mexican people to worship without being discriminated upon,” said parishioner Encarnacion V. Hernandez. “This church is considered almost like a basilica for the Spanish-speaking people. So this influx of immigrants from Mexico is good for the church because it’s keeping it moving.”
Long-time member Eddie Carrillo agrees. “The lifeblood of the church is the fact that it caters to the Hispanic community,”Carrillo said. “The immigrants are going there, and that’s what will keep it alive.”
Notre Dame’s Motovina says he’s heard that at many churches like Immaculate Heart that are going through similar transitions. “In a lot of places [I’ve spoken at], the savvy old-timers would say, ‘Without this [migration] we would lose our church’,” he said. “So the arrival of the Hispanics is kind of like a moment of salvation for them.”
The new immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries bring numbers, and with numbers comes more resources like priests and funding, he said.
Some of the long-time families who stayed with the church recognize that and are trying to encourage the newcomers to volunteer and join committees, preparing them for day they will take over. “Without them [the children] the church is done for,” Hernandez said. “And the more that they participate the stronger the roots will be, and they will keep coming back. Who cares if they only speak English, who cares if they only speak Spanish, as long as they come.”
We could hear music, singing, and everything upstairs. The Anglo boys were having a good time. There we were in the basement where it was dark and cold.
A rich past
But the unity that built the church was dissipated in 1915 when the Rev. Novatus Benzing, a German priest, declared that all Hispanic Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals would be held in the basement.The upstairs would be reserved for Anglo services.
Adam Diaz was only 6 when Benzing partitioned off the upstairs from the Hispanics, but he has never forgotten the shame his community felt. Diaz, Phoenix’s first Latino councilman, clearly remembers his First Communion at St. Mary’s. His mother had spent weeks preparing the children for communion. When they were ready, she led them to church, hoping the occasion would be reason enough to let the children go upstairs.
When they arrived, nuns were ushering the Anglo children upstairs, but Diaz and the other Hispanic children were sent to the basement. “Father Novatus, who was Franciscan and had a cord with three knots, hit us,” Diaz, 96, said. “He said, ‘Get over there; get over there!’”
The Latino children waited for the white ceremony to conclude, then a priest gave the Hispanic children their First Communion in the basement and left, he said.
“We could hear music, singing and everything upstairs,” he said. “The Anglo boys were having a good time. There we were in the basement, where it was dark and cold.”
Angry, Diaz’s mother rushed the children outside and sat them in the shade of some mesquite trees. She left and returned later with coco, pan de huevo, and cookies to cheer them up.
It was moments like these that convinced the Hispanic parishioners they needed a church of their own.
It took 13 years and $250,000 needed to erect the church and two other buildings. The majority of the cost was donated or lent by businesses, wealthy Mexican families, and the Tucson Diocese, which had control of St. Mary’s at the time. The remainder of the funds came from parishioners who sold tamales, tortillas, and other homemade Mexican food and held fund-raisers like dances and picnics, Diaz said.
The church, a school, and a parochial house were finally dedicated on December 16, 1928. It was designed with a Roman-inspired façade, two towers, and a balcony. The interior décor reflected Spanish culture more than Mexican culture, which may have been because of the priests’ preference for Spanish architecture or because they wanted something that equaled St. Mary’s in splendor.
At the dedication, a pamphlet was handed to the parishioners as they entered Immaculate Heart for the first time. The author wrote in Spanish: “The first shovel by Rdo. P. Nebredua was a spark of the new enthusiasm all the Mexicans in the population felt who came and realized their dreams, a thousand times created in their imagination ten years back and a thousand times frustrated. Will this really be so beautiful, they asked each other? To that question, we will let these three grandiose buildings that have become the pride of the Latin race of this population answer.”
They would never be herded to the basement again.
Photo by Kelley Karnes Mostly immigrant parishioners pack into Immaculate Heart for the Easter Sunday services, which are celebrated in Spanish. All but one of the church’s six Masses are in Spanish.
“I remember when they locked the doors during Mass” to limit disruptions during the service, said Barrios, an unofficial historian and a Central Arizona Project board member. “Mexican people were coming in from all over,”he said.
Barrios' family has been at Immaculate Heart since its inception. His European grandfather, a freighter, helped establish and fund the church and donated the original stained glass windows.
The thriving times ended when a series of clergy changes and a fire almost destroyed the church, he said.
The trials began in 1999, when a new priest, originally from Mexico, was hired by the diocese. Members felt threatened by Saúl Madrid because of the changes he brought and his conduct, Barrios said.
Madrid dismissed the church’s entire finance council, removed the Italian marble statues lining the church, and sharply increased fees for events like quincineras and baptisms. Then parishioners discovered that Madrid had played a minor role in an independent film, 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick, which was partly filmed at St. Anthony’s a couple miles away.
In the film, Madrid plays a priest and appears in two scenes. He speaks only briefly, but the low-budget film depicts full-frontal nudity, sodomy, and violence.
Church members were appalled. They held protests and circulated petitions calling for a new priest.
The tension grew after a fire broke out at Immaculate Heart on Palm Sunday in 2000—six years after a fire at St. Anthony’s, when Madrid was assigned to that church. After that, “people didn't feel the same warmth as they did before,” Barrios said.
By the numbers
The cause of the fire is still unknown, but arson hasn’t been ruled out, said Phoenix Fire Department Assistant Chief Bob Khan. The case is still under investigation, he said.
Damage to the interior of the church was a staggering 2.5 million dollars. The historic parish had to be refitted with a new main alter, a new Virgin of Guadalupe, and pews.
The church was closed for almost two during the renovations, and parishioners drifted to other parishes. Many never came back.
“My grandmother used to go to that church,” Khan said. “The devastation to the church and when a church burns, just the emotional tag it has on the community . . . and especially that church because of the significance it had on many lives in that church, like my grandmother.”
In early 2001, Madrid resigned and is no longer with the Phoenix Catholic Diocese, said Jose Robles, director of Hispanic ministry for the diocese.
Immaculate Heart reopened in 2002, but the controversy and the fire left it scarred.
“It started to dwindle down because of the fact that people were every discouraged with a lot of things that had happened and the church burning was the last straw,” said Eddie Carrillo, 49, long-time parishioner. “A lot of people got really disgruntled and left.”
Photo by Kelley Karnes A father helps his young son bless himself with holy water before entering the parish for Easter service.
Confidence in the future
It was another morning of prayer for Marquez who has been coming to weekday Mass with his wife for nearly 20 years. “The Hispanics prefer this church,” Marquez said as he nodded hello to friends walking past. “They are more comfortable here. These Spanish Masses are said from the heart.”
Marquez and other long-time parishioners believe that Immaculate Heart’s worst days are behind them.
And no matter what changes are still to come, they say the church will be there for them, and their children’s children. “That church has always been the focal point for many Hispanics in the Valley; the entire lives of many people have gone through that church,” Escobar said. “As long as the parish remains strong and people continue to identify with what it has meant over the years, it’s not going anywhere. It will continue to exist for each of us.”
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