Immaculate Heartbreak

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

Corral, who says he does not know Madrid, says it pains him to hear of not only the fire, but the animosity at Immaculate Heart.

"It's not just the church that has been burned down," he says. "I think it is very much like the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. It was a national catastrophe. The faith and the moral situation went all the way down. Because they identified with that church so much. They just loved it."

The Reverend Saúl Madrid is under sharp attack from 
parishioners at both St. Anthony and Immaculate Heart 
of Mary Church.
La Voz
The Reverend Saúl Madrid is under sharp attack from parishioners at both St. Anthony and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
Manuel Seda is a Phoenix pediatrician who argues that 
Madrid has devastated the St. Anthony parish.
Paolo Vescia
Manuel Seda is a Phoenix pediatrician who argues that Madrid has devastated the St. Anthony parish.

By October 1999, dissatisfaction was growing among parish regulars over what they perceived as Madrid's secretive management approach. Among the most irate were the five members of the parish's finance council, a church body that reviews parish records and helps the pastor make decisions on expenditures.

In his final bulletin to parishioners in late June 1999, Sotelo had reported that Immaculate Heart's bank balances totaled more than $346,000. Parishioners say that since then, however, financial disclosure at the parish has been scarce to nonexistent.

"Under Father Tony, we met monthly, and we used to see the documents -- bank statements, invoices and checks -- and there was never any problem with us seeing those things," says Carlos Nolasco, a former member of the finance council. (Sotelo confirms that during his pastorship, finances were strictly scrutinized by parish committees.)

"After Father Saúl took over in July 1999, there wasn't a single finance committee meeting between that date and the end of October," Nolasco says.

Madrid has also taken the unusual step of splitting up weekly donation-counting at Immaculate Heart into two groups. Rather than the traditional practice of having a single group come in Monday morning to count all of Sunday's donations, he now has one group count money from the early Masses on Sunday afternoon, while another group comes in Monday to count donations from the last two Sunday Masses. It's a move that not only defies practicality, it also prevents the money counters themselves from knowing the weekly total.

Finance-council members were so frustrated that, by fall, they had written a letter to O'Brien. In November, the bishop sent two men to Immaculate Heart to discuss ways for Madrid and the finance council to work together. It was agreed that they would wait until after the Christmas holidays, and then reconvene in January.

"Prior to the January meeting, we sent a letter to Father Saúl, requesting certain pieces of information, so we could have them for that meeting," says another former finance-council member, who wants to remain anonymous. "He never responded to the letter."

Former finance-council members say when they met with Madrid in January, they asked to see these documents, and the pastor refused to turn them over.

"He flat-out told us we didn't have a right to see it, didn't have a need to see it," the former council member says. "He had a couple of pieces of paper that had the amount of money we'd collected for the month, but there were no official bank documents that we could see, to see if there was really money there."

Finance-council members wrote to O'Brien, expressing their concerns. They say diocesan representatives told them that if they couldn't work with Madrid, that perhaps they should quit. Before they had a chance to do so, Madrid sent identical letters to all five council members, dismissing them from their duties.

The letters, dated February 18, 2000, made reference to the finance council's correspondence with O'Brien, pointedly quoting their use of the phrases "deep mistrust" and "a severe credibility issue." Such thoughts, Madrid argued, "will render us both incapable of fulfilling our ministry positions effectively. For this reason, I am dismissing you from any and all responsibility to the parish finance council."

Since the dismissal of the council, Immaculate Heart has continued to operate without any financial accountability to parishioners. In response to criticism over the dismissals, Madrid has begun to publicly refer to one of his supporters, Angel Torres, as a finance-council member. But insiders allege this is an artificial attempt to defuse criticism, and insist Madrid has yet to share any of the church's financial records with parishioners.

Disbanding the council would seem to put Madrid afoul of both the Code of Canon Law and diocesan practices. Canon 537 states: "Each parish is to have a finance council which is regulated by universal law as well as norms issued by the diocesan bishop." The Phoenix diocese, in its list of guidelines, stipulates that a parish finance council "should have a minimum of five members."

Such concerns about parish finances are intensified by what some parishioners see as exorbitant pricing practices on Madrid's part. They say he has charged as much as $500 for quinceañera Masses, a staggering figure considering that most of his parishioners are blue-collar workers with very little money to spare. By comparison, most Valley Catholic churches charge a small stipend of $50 or less and sometimes nothing for quinceañeras, a Hispanic celebration of a girl's 15th birthday.

Madrid also rents out the halls at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony for $2,000 and $1,800 a night, respectively, according to former finance-council members. And his frequent Saturday-night rentals of the St. Pius X Mission in south Phoenix for parties have annoyed members of the Black Catholic Ministry, which uses St. Pius X two Sundays each month for Masses.

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