Immaculate Heartbreak

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

Hernandez worked at both Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony, and lived in the St. Anthony rectory. His pay immediately jumped to slightly more than $700 a month. He remembers that his first two weeks working with Madrid were pleasant, but that the relationship quickly soured.

Hernandez says he began to question the presence of Martin Piña, who, according to Hernandez, had keys to the church and seemed to spend much of his time there even though he was not an employee.

"He's the one who runs things there," Hernandez says. "He tells the secretaries what to do, the cooks, everyone. He treats them very poorly."

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.

When Hernandez asked Madrid who Piña was, he says the pastor told him Piña was his cousin. Hernandez says it wasn't long before he grew alarmed over Piña's behavior.

"He would answer the phone, he would get involved in conversations that were none of his business, and he would be rude to people," Hernandez says. "I told Saúl, 'If this boy continues to be this way, I'm not sure how long I can work here. I may have to leave.'"

Hernandez says after he expressed his concerns to Madrid, he also called Piña to say he wanted to help him. But he says Piña only became more belligerent. The tension between them reached a crescendo in late July 1999 at the St. Anthony rectory.

Hernandez says Piña threw a plate lunch at him, then punched the priest with his fist. The two men rolled around on the floor, and Hernandez grabbed Piña in a headlock. He says Piña tried to break out of the headlock by lifting his head, which smacked right into Hernandez's mouth.

To Hernandez's dismay, both Madrid and diocesan officials sided with Piña. He says Madrid asked him to get on his knees and beg Piña's forgiveness, which he grudgingly did, because "my brother priest was asking me to." Also, what Hernandez describes as an inadvertent collision of his mouth and Piña's head was depicted by church officials as Hernandez maliciously biting Piña.

In an August 13, 1999, letter to Hernandez, Zurcher called the priest's actions "completely inappropriate," and said, "Even if you were provoked, it is not appropriate for you to physically confront a man in the rectory." The letter also expressed concern for Hernandez's "spiritual and emotional health," and suggested that he get counseling.

Finally, Zurcher said the diocese would reassess the future of Hernandez's Phoenix ministry if he had not learned to speak English by January 2000.

The requirement to speak English seemed at odds with Zurcher's visa recommendations to the INS only three months earlier. In it, Zurcher had emphasized Hernandez's Spanish proficiency as his primary asset to the diocese. After all, both Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony were dominated by Spanish-speaking parishioners. Between the two churches, they offered 12 Sunday Masses, and only two of them were in English.

After the fracas with Piña, Hernandez says he barricaded his door at night, fearful that Piña might attack him. He felt frozen out of the parish by Madrid, and says he overheard Madrid's staff dismiss him as "the wetback priest." He also says the diocese stopped paying him after August 1999.

He says Madrid dumped extra responsibilities on him, in one case requiring him to celebrate an astonishing 13 Masses in a single weekend. He also performed countless weddings and funerals.

On top of his parish duties, Hernandez says he would visit hospitals on a regular basis, and began taking afternoon English classes at Rio Salado College. He had no car, so he either walked, got a ride from parishioners, or hitchhiked.

Finally, in late September 1999, Hernandez suffered what doctors later determined to be an anxiety attack. He was hospitalized for three and a half days.

By that point, Hernandez had decided that he couldn't return to Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony. The diocese sent him back to San Martin Des Porres.

But on March 15, 2000, the bishop wrote to inform him: "After prayerful consideration of your presence in the Diocese of Phoenix over the past few years, I regret that I must withdraw the faculties for your ministry as a priest in this Diocese." O'Brien cited Hernandez's lack of a visa as a reason for the decision, despite the fact that Zurcher -- on behalf of the diocese -- had petitioned for Hernandez's visa, which was still pending.

O'Brien's letter continued: "I am aware of your frustration at not being able to fully exercise your priestly ministry in the United States. Language, health and pastoral circumstances together with the legal issue of the visa have served to curtail your efforts to live and work as a priest."

Hernandez returned to Chihuahua in April. He blames Piña, more than Madrid, for his problems at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony.

Hejdak succeeded Hernandez at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony last October. Now at St. Francis Parish in Seligman, Hejdak describes the six months he spent working with Madrid as "a horror movie." He says Madrid never communicated with him, adding, "I would learn about any changes through the public bulletins."

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