Immaculate Heartbreak

Three months after a fire gutted Phoenix's oldest Hispanic Catholic church, its pastor is feeling the heat and parishioners are steaming

But efforts to contain it were hampered when enormous chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling. A fire department video shows some firemen carrying out an organ, others blasting hundreds of gallons of water into the church, another standing knee deep in water as he doused the space beneath the hacked-up church floor.

When it was over, Immaculate Heart's interior was a wreck. The federal ATF -- which investigates church fires as part of a national effort to stem hate crimes -- worked with Phoenix fire investigators for weeks to solve the mystery of how and why the blaze started.

Phoenix fire, the ATF and the FBI are continuing to investigate, but officials haven't yet determined what caused the fire. Investigators say it could have been caused by overheating of some lights that were wired for spotlights but contained regular bulbs. A burning candle could have been left too close to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, either accidentally or on purpose. Or someone could have intentionally started the fire with an open flame.

Juanita Encinas, a Chandler activist and former United 
Farm Workers leader, lobbied for Hernandez's 
appointment by the diocese.
Juanita Encinas, a Chandler activist and former United Farm Workers leader, lobbied for Hernandez's appointment by the diocese.
Parishioners say St. Anthony has never recovered 
from a devastating 1994 fire.
Paolo Vescia
Parishioners say St. Anthony has never recovered from a devastating 1994 fire.

Phoenix fire officials, who have heard about the unrest at the parishes and the rumors about Madrid, say they've learned nothing that would make them change their designation of the 1994 fire at St. Anthony as accidental.

But there are striking similarities between the two fires that have added to parishioners' persistent yet unproved suspicions.

Both occurred at churches presided over by Saúl Madrid, who was not universally accepted at either parish. Both broke out within hours of services on major feast days.

Both began near an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The St. Anthony blaze destroyed a portrait near the altar. The Immaculate Heart fire's point of origin was near the shrine to the Virgin.

The St. Anthony fire was caused, investigators said, by a candle igniting some greenery in the Advent wreath. The Immaculate Heart blaze may have been caused by a candle burning too close to a palm frond.

Both blazes caused only interior damage. But they spurred sympathetic publicity, and an outpouring of public concern, spiritual support -- and generous donations.

In both cases, insurance covered the losses. Yet Madrid sought money above and beyond the costs of the destruction. The fund-raising campaign for St. Anthony raised enough for $500,000 worth of renovations, four times the damage estimate of $125,000.

Damage at Immaculate Heart has been set at $2 million. In June, at the first renovation committee meeting at the church, a diocesan official said insurance would cover "full replacement value" of the damage, and provide another $500,000 to bring the renovated church up to code. But minutes later, Madrid declared, "insurance will only cover so much" and announced a community-wide fund-raising campaign to supplement the nearly $70,000 already donated since the April fire.

After both fires, more modern houses of worship -- stripped of the lush, formal decor that more traditional Catholics associate with reverence -- have emerged.

When St. Anthony was being repaired, services were temporarily held in a church hall. Madrid told reporters then that without kneelers or pews, parishioners sat in folding chairs and learned it was just as respectful to stand rather than kneel during the Eucharistic celebration -- the holiest part of the Mass. A new modernistic baptismal font, an oversize bowl, was placed in the center of the room.

Today, St. Anthony -- renovated with the help of a liturgical consultant -- has kept those new traditions. The church's walls and the altar -- a cube of wood -- are nearly bare. Only a few statues are placed inside. The large baptismal font is still in the center of the church and folks still sit on wooden folding chairs. They still stand during the parts of the Mass where they used to kneel.

And the gym at Immaculate Heart looks like it came out of the same spartan church design book. Stark walls. Folding chairs. A plain altar. A large white baptismal bowl in the center of the room. And no kneelers.

Members of a church committee overseeing the restoration -- including Madrid -- promise the new sanctuary will respect the past but make improvements. But, they say, some changes can be expected, as a liturgical consultant will again provide expert advice on how to rebuild the church according to acceptable practices.

Madrid's supporters see his modernist leanings as evidence that he's a progressive, open-minded thinker -- a man trying to relate to the contemporary world.

"Father Saúl's a different type of person," says Jenkins, who was taught by Jesuits at Brophy High School. "He's very opinionated. He had some tough battles at St. Anthony, and he knew he was going to face even more at Immaculate Heart. And he did. People attacked him flat-out. Some of the lingering anger from St. Anthony, people tried to sow that at Immaculate Heart."

Adan Ledezma, an Immaculate Heart parishioner since 1994, agrees with Jenkins, saying Madrid is doing "a great job" heading both churches.

"I think he's doing his best," he says. "I think he's doing more than he's supposed to do. Our responsibility as members of the community is to take responsibility for the church. It's not the church of Father Saúl and it's not the church of everybody. It's the church of God."

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