Immaculate Heartbreak

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

Ledezma, who sits on the renovation committee, says the anti-Madrid forces are small but determined. Particularly upsetting to Ledezma are the scandalous accusations some are "inventing" about Madrid. "I ask them, 'Where is the proof?' And they say, 'I just heard people say that.' You have to have clear evidence to make those claims. They are denigrating his dignity."

Other priests say they were well aware of the fire potential at Immaculate Heart and took extra precautions to ensure the safety of the buildings. Sotelo, the former pastor, says he kept a watchful eye on the security video monitor inside his office. Corral, the former associate pastor, says he checked inside the church 50 to 60 times a day. Both say they made a nightly ritual of checking inside Immaculate Heart to make sure every candle was extinguished. "We even looked under the pews," Corral says.

Investigators have heard all the accusations and rumors. Khan says he got an earful on Easter Sunday, when he attended Mass at Immaculate Heart as a gesture of support. Half the people who approached him suggested Madrid started the fire; the others thought the anti-Madrid forces were behind the blaze, he says.

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.

ATF agent Tom Mangan says investigators have interviewed "dozens and dozens" of people in connection with the case. They are trying to focus on evidence, not just rumors, he says.

On Thursday, June 22, the diocese unveiled its restoration plan for Immaculate Heart at a two-and-a-half-hour meeting at the parish hall. More than 60 parishioners were introduced to the restoration committee -- 12 parishioners chosen by Madrid -- and to the other key members of the effort.

Anti-Madrid forces had their first chance to directly express their fears in a public setting. Considering how confrontational the gathering was, it may also turn out to be their last.

For more than an hour, the gathering was civil. Architect Ben Barcon discussed the stages involved in the building's reconstruction, explaining that it would take a year before work was completed, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2 million. Already, he said, the church is reaping benefits: A sound system worth $18,000, 650 new chairs valued at $13,000 and an air-conditioning system for the gym have been purchased with insurance proceeds.

A 10-minute video was shown, which contrasted the ornate state of Immaculate Heart last Christmas with the pile of plaster-caked rubble it is now.

But the tone changed about halfway through the meeting, when Madrid allowed parishioners to ask questions. Manuel Seda, a Phoenix pediatrician and former St. Anthony parishioner, practically choked on his own anger. He sarcastically asked if the church would really be completed in a year, "or will it take three years like St. Anthony's to reopen it?"

Despite Madrid's request that Seda step to the microphone so he could be heard better, Seda stubbornly refused to leave his seat. He pointedly called the pastor by his first name, unwilling to recognize his religious title.

The most telling moment came during an exchange between Madrid and an Immaculate Heart parishioner named Cecilia Echeveste. In a shaky but determined voice, Echeveste defined her concerns.

"Since July of 1999," she said, "when Father Saúl came to this parish, a lot of us are concerned about the money coming in. Since then, we've had no accountability of any kind. Finance committee members were fired.

"The issue is one of accountability," she added, before assuring Madrid, "once we have that, I'm sure that everybody will get together behind you."

Madrid responded with barely contained rage. "This meeting is about a restoration of Immaculate Heart. Not whether Father Saúl may be stealing the money from the parish or not. I am very, very offended that you have alluded in public -- you are publicly bringing an accusation that there are doubts about monies that are missing from Immaculate Heart."

Madrid then explained that the money sent in voluntarily to aid in church restoration had amounted so far to $67,000. It all went directly into a diocese account, he said. "I do not touch a single penny," he said. He ended his angry discourse with a single directive: "We will not discuss the issue of money anymore."

It was a surprising dismissal, since the purpose of the meeting was to lay out the plans for the rebuilding of the church, including not only the timetable but the costs.

People at the meeting turned to defending Madrid. When other speakers in the audience pleaded for unity in the parish, many applauded. Several members of the committee called for peace. Diana Chavez, a committee member with deep family roots in the church, tearfully condemned the treatment of Madrid.

"I have faith in my pastor, Father Saúl. Why should somebody of the cloth be scrutinized the way he has . . . it's the way Jesus was crucified," she said.

Ultimately, even when Madrid tries to reassure people, as he did the night of the meeting, he only manages to leave his critics more worried.

"I am not here to destroy Immaculate Heart," he told the gathering. The comment was reminiscent of another he made in a June 1999 Arizona Republic article, trying to ward off the protesters who didn't want him at Immaculate Heart: "I have not destroyed St. Anthony in the last five years and I do not intend to destroy Immaculate Heart."

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