Immaculate Heartbreak

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

There were heartwarming news reports of the renovation efforts, and accounts of fund raisers -- simple ones like burrito sales after Masses and fancier affairs like a $75-a-plate dinner and a Renaissance-themed "magical evening," described by Wilcox in a society column.

Julian Sodari, a neighborhood activist with the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, was a member of the St. Anthony Pastoral Council. He's worried that the fund-raising effort hasn't been properly monitored.

"And my wife, who does the counting [of church collections] every Monday morning, said checks are still coming in for that purpose," Sodari says.

The Reverend Francisco "Paco" Hernandez had a 
brief, miserable experience working with Madrid at 
Immaculate Heart.
Paolo Vescia
The Reverend Francisco "Paco" Hernandez had a brief, miserable experience working with Madrid at Immaculate Heart.
Juanita Encinas, a Chandler activist and former United 
Farm Workers leader, lobbied for Hernandez's 
appointment by the diocese.
Paolo Vescia
Juanita Encinas, a Chandler activist and former United Farm Workers leader, lobbied for Hernandez's appointment by the diocese.

The fire, which had caused $125,000 in damage, had spurred enough donations to pay for a $500,000 restoration project. Two years passed before St. Anthony was renovated sufficiently enough to reopen.

But it has never been fully restored. Six years after the fire, the church still has holes in its ceiling, walls that have not been painted, doors that have not been finished, confessionals that have not been rebuilt. The stations of the cross are gone. The pews have been replaced by wooden chairs.

Madrid also rid the church of kneelers. Sodari says when Bishop O'Brien found out about that, he ordered Madrid to replace them. Parishioners raised money for the kneelers. They have yet to be installed.

During the St. Anthony renovation period, Madrid decided to tear down the three houses behind the church, forcing Gomez to close her shop. As a result, four elderly people also had to find new homes. She says Madrid told her that the church's insurance company insisted the houses be torn down, but she refuses to believe his contention.

Gomez says such experiences permanently soured her -- and other St. Anthony parishioners -- on the Catholic church. "A lot of the regular people left and we went our way," she says. "I don't go to church anymore, because St. Anthony was my church. My husband died three years ago, and that was about the last time I set foot in there."

In early 1999, the diocese announced that Father Tony Sotelo was leaving Immaculate Heart to pursue his jail and prison ministry full-time. The Reverend José Corral, his associate, had accepted an appointment in California. Suddenly, this hugely popular parish desperately needed two new pastors.

O'Brien went to Immaculate Heart on March 26 for what parishioners expected to be an open-forum discussion of the vacant head-pastor position. Instead, he announced that Madrid would be named pastor of Immaculate Heart, while retaining his post at St. Anthony.

Despite the mounting unrest at St. Anthony, O'Brien had decided Madrid was the right man to succeed Sotelo. O'Brien promised the parish would not be weakened by the change. Masses would not be reduced; Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony would remain distinct parishes, with separate staffs.

As soon as the announcement was made, an unholy war of words broke out at Immaculate Heart. A small group of protesters calling themselves the Christian Faithful organized a demonstration outside the church and gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition, which they submitted to the diocese, calling for Corral to be named head pastor.

They also wrote a series of letters to Catholic officials, beginning with O'Brien. In an April 22, 1999, letter, the group carefully avoided criticizing Madrid, but simply urged the bishop to ask Corral to stay in Phoenix.

They say O'Brien failed to respond to their letter, so the group wrote to Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillian in Washington, D.C. They informed Cacciavillian: "We believe that, due to our Hispanic heritage, Bishop O'Brien and the diocesan staff that advise him in these matters, disrespected and gave no consideration to our feelings, needs or opinions."

On June 13, 1999, O'Brien made a surprise appearance at Immaculate Heart for the 10:30 a.m. Mass. He again endorsed Madrid, but did not take questions from the congregation.

That same day, the Christian Faithful sent another letter to O'Brien. By this time, the group was also going after Madrid. They attacked him for telling Immaculate Heart employees that they would all need to reapply for their jobs if they wanted to stay on after July 1. Group members say Madrid's action reminded them more of a number-crunching government bureaucrat than a Catholic priest.

Amid this emotional turbulence, Madrid officially became pastor at Immaculate Heart on July 1, 1999. On his first Sunday at Immaculate Heart, parishioners say, he showed up for church with a black eye. When curious parishioners asked about it, he told them that he'd been punched by a drunken teenager at a St. Anthony church-hall party that he'd gone to monitor.

Sotelo declined to comment on Madrid or the parishioners' accusations, saying he does not want to get involved in the controversy at Immaculate Heart. He will talk about the years when he was in charge there, a time when Masses increased from four on Sunday to a dozen, a time when he and others say there was a warm, welcome feeling to the church.

Corral, associate pastor for the last year of Sotelo's assignment, describes the atmosphere at Immaculate Heart similarly and says he enjoyed his time there immensely.

"I felt like in heaven," he says in a telephone interview.

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