Sacred Heart Beats On

A melted candle, silk flowers and a few spider webs. Crickets chirping, cars whooshing by and planes taking off. Anxiety, sadness and reverence.

Sacred Heart Church overwhelms the senses.

Driving through the intersection of 16th Street and Buckeye Road in central Phoenix, you might arbitrarily pass this solitary brick building without second thought. But if you take a moment to stop and notice it, you'll see an almost-missed opportunity to learn an important piece of Phoenix history.

Sacred Heart ChurchSeveral signs placed on the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Sacred Heart Church notify passersby that the building is now off-limits to the public.
Photo by Joanne Ingram

Sacred Heart Church stands in the corner of an otherwise empty lot. For more than two decades, it was the only remnant of the Golden Gate Barrio, a Mexican-American neighborhood that was razed in the 1970s and 1980s to make room for the expansion of the Sky Harbor International Airport and the Sky Harbor Center.

According to Dr. Santos Vega, former president of the Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education and former executive director of the Braun-Sacred Heart Center, residents of the barrio were displaced through eminent domain, which gives municipalities the power to acquire private land for public use and offer compensation to the landowners.

Abe Arvizu Jr., current chairman of the Braun-Sacred Heart Center and aviation electrician for the city of Phoenix, used to live in the neighborhood.

"We were the last family to leave," Arvizu said.

During that time, the city also planned to tear down Sacred Heart Church, which was completed in 1956, but after extensive debate over how to proceed, the church was added to the Historic Property Register in 2007.

Frank Barrios, author of the book "Mexicans in Phoenix," attended a Phoenix Aviation Advisory Board meeting several years ago to discuss the church. In a phone interview, Barrios said there were plans to build a cultural center around it.

Pete Dimas, executive director of the Braun-Sacred Heart Center, said another objective was to construct a historical museum on the site.

Arvizu confirmed expansion plans, saying four proposals were brought to the table, none of which were chosen, suddenly halting the church's expansion plans. A lack of funding didn't help.

Frank BarriosFrank Barrios collected thousands of photos and captured many of them in his book, "Mexicans in Phoenix." He also collects books such as this one on the history of Arizona.
Photo by Joanne Ingram

"Everything's dead because of the economy," Barrios said.

Although the church normally stands empty, the door opens one day of the year and hundreds flock to the building. Since 1986, Christmas Mass has been held at Sacred Heart Church.

"The Sacred Heart Church was a very important part of Golden Gate," David Almendarez, a member of the Braun-Sacred Heart Center, said in an e-mail.

The Christmas Mass celebration allows former barrio residents to reunite and remember the old neighborhood.

Barrios has fond memories of the neighborhood as well. Although he was raised in downtown Phoenix, he spent much of his youth at places like Calderon's, a dance hall in the barrio.

Barrios later joined a committee to help erect a statue of Father Albert Braun, the man who built Sacred Heart Church. Braun died in 1983 and his statue now stands in the Wesley Bolin Memorial Park at the Arizona State Capitol Concourse in Phoenix.

Despite the continuous battle over the church, Arvizu said, Sky Harbor International Airport has also brought about positive changes to the city. According to Heather Lissner, public information specialist for the city's Aviation Department, the airport employs 33,000 people and airport officials remain active in the community.

The old Sacred Heart Church remains in the flight path. But, Lissner said, officials began the Community Noise Reduction Program in the 1990s, which provides soundproofing to homes nearby.

Many still hold on to the hope that Sacred Heart Church can someday expand and include those who want to learn about the history of the old neighborhood.

"We're still in limbo," Arvizu said. "We want to move on and see what we can do."

—Joanne Ingram

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