Immaculate Heartbreak

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

"A couple of times, parents have come in with their kids on Sundays and seen 30 or 40 beer cans in the courtyard that they've had to pick up," says Keith Williams, a council member with the Black Catholic Ministry of Phoenix. "To me, it's a disgrace, and Father Saúl knows about it."

One of Immaculate Heart's biggest financial controversies in the past year concerns Madrid's handling of new doors for the church's entrance.

Because the year 2000 is a jubilee year in the Catholic church -- an event that occurs every 25 years -- and Immaculate Heart was designated by O'Brien as one of seven holy churches in the diocese, part of a special pilgrimage, Madrid decided to order new doors to greet the expected flood of visitors who would enter the church this year.

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.

Parishioners say he did so without receiving approval from the parish. He then announced that parishioners would have to raise $35,000 to cover the cost of the doors.

The move confounded longtime parishioners, because the church's wooden doors had been part of Immaculate Heart since it was built, and had historic value.

They were replaced by ill-fitting metal doors that many considered an eyesore. Parishioners raised more than $37,000 for the effort, according to the parish's weekly bulletins, but some questioned whether the new doors were really as expensive as Madrid said they were. And if there was money left over from the fund-raising effort, where did it go, they wondered.

The Reverend Andrzej Hejdak, a Poland native who spent seven years as a missionary in Venezuela before moving to Phoenix in 1999, served as an associate pastor at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony from October 1999 until April. Hejdak says he was at Immaculate Heart the morning the doors were being installed, and he struck up a conversation with the craftsman who said he'd made the doors. He says the man told him that the doors had cost only $12,000.

Since the diocese and Madrid wouldn't respond to questions, New Times couldn't review records that might show the actual cost.

In the past year, two associate pastors have left Madrid's parishes on bad terms, blaming Madrid and his friend Martin Piña for driving them out. This perceived mistreatment of Spanish-speaking priests has galvanized animosity toward Madrid.

On July 1, 1999, the same day that Madrid was named pastor at Immaculate Heart, the diocese appointed an associate pastor for both parishes: the Reverend Francisco Hernandez. But everyone called him "Father Paco."

Hernandez, 39, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, the seventh of 11 children. He says he studied philosophy and theology in a Monterrey, Mexico, seminary, and spent his early years as a priest in Juárez, working to rehabilitate gang kids.

Hernandez suffers from asthma, and doctors had told him that moving to a dry climate would improve his condition. So in May 1997, he came to Phoenix at the invitation of his friend, the Reverend Julio Higuera, associate pastor at St. Anne in Gilbert. For three months, Hernandez stayed at St. Anne, helping out on weekends by celebrating Masses there.

Higuera took Hernandez to meet Bishop O'Brien, who assigned Hernandez to San Martin Des Porres, a small, impoverished parish with no full-time pastor. His living quarters would be at St. Catherine of Sienna, in south Phoenix.

Hernandez says the diocese provided him with no food and no transportation. It made no effort to help him obtain a visa. It paid him only $180 a month and did not help him to learn English.

Despite these obstacles, in a short time, Hernandez stirred new enthusiasm at San Martin.

"San Martin Des Porres was a lost parish," says Juanita Encinas, 46, a Chandler activist and former United Farm Workers leader. "There were only about 30 people when he went there, and after a while he had 500 people."

Encinas has long been a parishioner at St. Mary's Church in Chandler, but when she saw Hernandez celebrate Mass at St. Anne, she was so impressed that she wanted to bring him to her parish.

"Father Paco is a beautiful priest," she says. "He finds those words that are inspiring. When he celebrates a Mass, you live the Mass."

"He preached the faith," agrees Sodari. "He was interested in the way people thought, and he got along well with people. He really cared for the congregation."

Encinas sought a permanent appointment in Phoenix for Hernandez, and urged Father Thomas Zurcher, vicar for the diocese, to find a church for him.

She says Zurcher was initially reluctant, but he eventually assigned Hernandez to Immaculate Heart. Meanwhile, Encinas prepared the paperwork to obtain a religious visa for Hernandez.

In a May 21, 1999, letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Zurcher announced Hernandez's appointment and added: "Hernandez will provide a valuable service to the Catholic Church of Phoenix -- ministry to immigrant Catholics at a time when we have a shortage of priests who are able to do so. Also, he will have sufficient financial compensation for his ministry that will allow him to live reasonably well in the United States."

Zurcher is listed as the petitioner on Hernandez's September 2, 1999, INS application for a special religious visa. The processing period was expected to be 320 to 360 days, but there was every reason to believe Hernandez would get his visa.

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