Immaculate Heartbreak

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

The image was strange, Kunkel says, given not only Madrid's background as a migrant fruit picker but the nature of the church he was serving. St. Anthony, Madrid told Kunkel, was one of the poorest parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix.

As a diocesan priest, Madrid did not take a vow of poverty, only pledges of celibacy and obedience to his bishop. Pastors receive nominal salaries from the diocese that may be supplemented by donations from parishioners or extra money provided by the Pastoral Council. But diocesan priests are encouraged to make voluntary vows of poverty. They are asked to live simply and not get involved in any business. In addition, they are obligated to dress in a manner that identifies them as priests.

If Madrid doesn't always dress the part of a priest, he has certainly used his position to win respect from local power brokers. He's long been friends with County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, he recently sat side by side with Attorney General Janet Napolitano at a press conference about a citizenship drive for immigrants, and his name has been linked with other movers and shakers in the community.

Madrid, right, with Attorney General Janet Napolitano, 
has endeared himself to local and state political 
La Voz
Madrid, right, with Attorney General Janet Napolitano, has endeared himself to local and state political figures.
Immaculate Heart is a 72-year-old church that has 
been the spiritual hub for local Hispanics.
Paolo Vescia
Immaculate Heart is a 72-year-old church that has been the spiritual hub for local Hispanics.

He's also been a favorite of Bishop Thomas O'Brien. Called one of O'Brien's "best men" by a diocesan official in a June 1999 Arizona Republic article, Madrid has seen his sphere of influence steadily expand under the bishop's authority. He not only was made pastor of two important parishes, he was also given domain over the St. Pius X mission in south Phoenix.

In a way, it's easy to understand why he's long been viewed as a rising star within the diocese. A wiry, diminutive man with jet-black hair and sunken, melancholy eyes, he's a confident, dynamic speaker who's equally eloquent in English and Spanish. And he's remarkably media-savvy, repeatedly turning up on local newscasts, and in newspaper articles and society columns.

But Immaculate Heart is an ailing parish, and the fire is only part of the problem.

Two widely admired, Spanish-speaking priests have left the parish in the past 10 months, at a time when the diocese is desperately short of clergy to serve the burgeoning Hispanic population. The priests -- and some parishioners -- believe Madrid ran them off.

Madrid dismissed his entire Immaculate Heart finance council in January -- apparently in violation of church rules -- after the members complained that he wasn't allowing them to see the parish's financial records. Since then, parishioners have been unable to monitor hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

Attendance at Sunday Masses, which reportedly approached 8,000 a year ago, is sharply down; the number of Masses has dropped from an average of 12 each Sunday to seven.

Weekly donations, which regularly brought in between $8,000 and $9,000 under Madrid's predecessor, the Reverend Tony Sotelo, are now less than $4,000, according to church bulletins.

A dissident group called the Christian Faithful -- which gathered 6,000 petition signatures last year in an attempt to block Madrid's appointment to Immaculate Heart -- has only grown more vehement in its opposition to him. Early this year, some members of the group even hired a firm to investigate Madrid.

Disgruntled parishioners accuse Madrid of deliberately stripping his churches of statues and other traditional touchstones in a modernist drive to secularize his parishes.

Church regulars are uneasy about his role in a movie called 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick, an independent, locally made film that two casting agencies considered too pornographic to be involved with.

He's also under fire about his close relationship with a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant named Martin Piña. Piña has no official position at either St. Anthony or Immaculate Heart, but church insiders allege that he is a ubiquitous -- and highly destructive -- presence at both parishes. State records show the two share a lease on a 1999 Chevy Blazer and a past business interest.

Piña also declined New Times' requests for comment. His lawyer, Larry Hammond, confirmed Piña also has been interviewed by federal agents but says Piña is reluctant to talk to New Times because of the ongoing investigation.

It was difficult for some parishioners at the April sermon to hear their pastor complain about what he'd been forced to endure; they were still mourning their own loss. After all, Immaculate Heart had been more than a place of worship for local Hispanics. It's where family members for decades had celebrated treasured rites of passage: baptisms, first Communions, quinceañeras, weddings and funerals. The interior decor was reverently formal, featuring numerous statues, images and shrines central to the Hispanic faith.

After the fire, attending Mass at Immaculate Heart meant filing into a sweltering old gymnasium that bore no relation to the adjacent church: no tabernacle, no altar, no Italian marble statues, no stained-glass dome, no pews or kneelers. Some longtime parishioners were so overcome with grief that they couldn't bear to attend Mass at Immaculate Heart.

For Madrid, any attempt to rebuild unity at Immaculate Heart is undermined every time parishioners enter their dispiriting temporary surroundings. The brightly lighted room is more sterile than sacred. Clean peach-colored walls are adorned with cantaloupe-hued flourishes. A large white statue of Jesus hangs on a blanket on the front wall. Shiny white folding chairs are arranged in a U shape around the priest standing at a makeshift altar.

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