Immaculate Heartbreak

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

After ordination to the priesthood in 1985, Madrid served as associate pastor at Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral until 1989. He spent the next two years as associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe, and in 1991 became a head pastor for the first time, at St. Henry in Buckeye. (Persistent rumors have circulated that a small fire occurred at St. Henry while Madrid was pastor, but ATF special agent Thomas Gehlert says, "We looked into it and we believe that fire happened before Father Saúl went there.")

As Madrid moved up in local Catholic ranks, so did his public visibility. He's told others he's been exhausted by his ministerial obligations, yet he repeatedly manages time for television appearances and newspaper interviews. He's appeared in newspaper stories or on TV much more than any other Catholic priest, according to a database search of media libraries.

Much of the publicity has related to the fires at Madrid's churches -- including numerous inspirational accounts of the rebuilding of St. Anthony. But he's also been in the press for a variety of other reasons: He's been quoted regarding crimes, injustices or funerals for parish members, social issues important to the Hispanic community, and his visit to the bedside of Mary Rose Wilcox after she was shot three years ago.

Armando Jenkins is a Madrid supporter who urges 
Immaculate Heart parishioners to stop bickering.
Paolo Vescia
Armando Jenkins is a Madrid supporter who urges Immaculate Heart parishioners to stop bickering.
Sara Perez, left, and her husband Juan stand outside 
Immaculate Heart, the church she has been banned 
from entering.
Paolo Vescia
Sara Perez, left, and her husband Juan stand outside Immaculate Heart, the church she has been banned from entering.

He's opined on the popularity of the pope, whether President Clinton should be forgiven for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. And he's been named in society columns three times.

When Madrid transferred to St. Anthony in 1994, it looked like a perfect fit. Here was a Mexican immigrant being paired with a heavily Hispanic, working-class parish. But divisions quickly began to surface.

At the time, Sylvia Gomez operated a gift shop in one of three small houses behind the church. In the back room of her shop -- which sold religious items -- she provided boarding for a retired couple. The other two buildings each housed an elderly woman.

Gomez met Madrid shortly after his assignment to St. Anthony.

"He came in and I toured the church with him, and right away he said he didn't like saints," she recalls. "He also said he didn't like reading out of a Catholic Bible, because it wasn't accurate.

"I said, 'Father, please don't take the saints out, because all the viejitos [old men] are going to hang you, because they're very strict on things like that.' And he said he didn't give a damn, because it was his church and he could do whatever he wanted."

On Sunday, December 11, 1994 -- the day before the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day-- fire broke out at St. Anthony.

The fire department got the call at 3:23 that afternoon. Workers in the basement of the church cooking in preparation for the feast noticed smoke coming through the ceiling. According to Phoenix Fire Department investigators, the volunteers fled the kitchen while one woman called the fire department and sent some children to the rectory to summon Madrid.

Madrid has told reporters of a dramatic injury sustained during the fire. But the fire department made no mention of this in its report on the blaze.

The official account says boys pounded on Madrid's door. Then the pastor went to the front of the church (apparently ignoring a closer side door) and opened the door to flames and smoke. "He closed the door and came back to the parish and called the fire department," the report says.

But a newspaper story the next day says Madrid twisted his ankle while trying to yank open a door "in a desperate attempt to save his church."

In Enormous Prayers, Madrid says he had retired to the rectory for a nap after saying four Masses that day. Alerted to the fire, he says, he ran up the stairs to the church, and entered to see a horrific sight: the altar in flames.

Kunkel asked Madrid what such an image meant to a priest: "Madrid lowers his head, searching for words . . . 'For a priest . . . ,' he begins, then trails off. 'I would imagine for many people, but for a priest . . . to see an altar up in flames, it is an indescribable event.'"

At this point, the book says, Madrid hurried downstairs to look for a fire extinguisher. In the smoky confusion, he says, he missed a step and hurt his foot. Later, he would learn it was broken.

Fire investigators ruled the blaze accidental, concluding it was likely caused by a candle in a large Advent wreath suspended over the altar. The burning wreath then fell on the altar, officials say.

Sylvia Gomez had nagging questions about the fire. And, after the blaze, she was bothered by Madrid's eagerness for publicity.

"He started coming out on TV a lot, crying and saying that he needed money," Gomez says. She adds that a laughing Madrid once told her whenever he used his crutches in public, he got things for free.

Although the church was covered by insurance, Madrid appointed church member and county supervisor Wilcox to head up the restoration committee, charged not only with planning the new, improved church, but raising money to pay for it. Madrid and others sought donations from parishioners, outside groups and businesses. (Wilcox did not respond to a New Times request for comment on this story.)

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