A HOUSE DIVIDENDIN SOUTH PHOENIX, A PRIEST AND HIS PARISHIONERS LET IT FLY
Last June, Father Gerald Yeager of Saint Edward's Catholic Church at 44th Street and Southern canceled the once-a-month Mass he gave in Spanish. The bishop told me I could cancel it if I could fire a cannonball down the aisle of the church," he has said many times since. Attendance had lagged, and Hispanic parishioners, led by Michael Sedillo, a Eucharistic minister and lector, blamed it on Yeager's poor command of Spanish. Then what began as a sincere protest built into an impassioned exchange of racial epithets and a lingering and divisive debate over what responsibilities an Anglo priest has to his Hispanic parishioners. One side demands a voice in running the church, the other accuses it of doing the work of the devil." Words fly, but nobody listens, and both sides scream racism." It should have been amicably resolved. Now, as Father Timothy Davern, chancellor of the Diocese of Phoenix, says, I'm not sure if the two sides can reconcile at this time."
Saint Edward's is a modest church, little more than a round cinder-block auditorium in a comfortably integrated middle-class neighborhood. Father Yeager had initially agreed to the Spanish Mass when church members asked for it early in 1991. Years ago he had been in a largely Hispanic parish where I gave a sermon every Sunday and never got a complaint." But Father Jerry is a proud man, by his own admission, perhaps too proud. He likes his reputation of being brash and outspoken. But he doesn't like criticism. He recalls: At this meeting they said, `Your Spanish is so terrible we can't understand you.' I said, `Well, get yourself a Spanish-speaking priest.' I'm sure as hell not going to celebrate Mass after being insulted in that way."
The tone was set, and tensions came to a head on August 19. After Mass, about 30 Hispanics, including a number of children, approached the priest. In the ensuing discussion about the Spanish Mass, Sedillo, a normally taciturn accountant, called Yeager a liar. Yeager's response, by several accounts, was that they were a bunch of stupid, illiterate, dumb Mexicans," and You people multiply so damned fast anyway, in less than five years you're going to be telling me what to do."
The congregation was dumbfounded. It was a real shock for me, being that he's a priest," says Dolores Samaniego. I'm an adult and I understand that priests are human, too. But there were kids there."
My son was shocked," says Robert de la Vega. He talked about it for a week. `Are you going to allow him to say that?' he asked. I said we have to approach it in a civilized manner. But after that, he doesn't feel the same toward the church."
Yeager denies the insult-but his explanation is not much better. I never referred to birthrate," Yeager says. I'm not that stupid. What I told them was that they wanted everything spoonfed, that we bent over backwards for them. And that's the reason they haven't advanced. I never said anything about having too many kids because I don't believe in birth control. I did say that they were lazy and didn't make the effort to learn the language."
The dispute with Sedillo was all the more bitter because the two men had been friends and close associates, and Yeager clearly blames him for the division in the parish. Sedillo had helped give Communion, had read the gospel during services, headed a program to distribute food to the poor, and even took out the church garbage. Yeager relieved him of all responsibilities. Three times he refused to give Sedillo Communion and once whispered in his ear in church that he was a bastard. Yeager says he later apologized publicly.
But he stood firm on the canceled Spanish Mass. Father told us that he would rather go to Hell before he would bring back the Spanish Mass," recalls Raymond Argel, a retired school administrator.
On October 30, Bishop Thomas O'Brien, the head of the Diocese of Phoenix, finally gave in to the ÔPro-Spanish" committee's petition for an audience to discuss the Mass, the racial slur, and Yeager's authoritarian hold over all matters in the parish. The committee was disappointed with the bishop's response. He told us to let the Holy Spirit take care of it," says Argel. He asked us to stay low-key until it cooled off and maybe we could get together in a year."
The bishop also told Yeager to reinstate the Spanish Mass, and not monthly but weekly, though Yeager would not have to coordinate it. Father Tony Sotelo, the vicar for Spanish-speaking priests in the diocese, volunteered to help find someone to say Mass from week to week. Recently, however, Sotelo's own duties have grown to include a pastorless church in Gila Bend in addition to his own busy parish, Immaculate Heart. Now the Pro-Spanish group has to find priests on its own.
ON TUESDAY NIGHT, April 7, Sedillo, de la Vega and two other members of the Pro-Spanish committee attended the parish council meeting at Saint Edward's. The council makes all decisions for the church, but the dissenters allege that it is a rubber stamp, inner circle, and even though the councilmembers are elected by the parish, the priest can choose whom he will allow to run.
When the committee asked for questions from the parishioners at large, Robert de la Vega stood up and timidly asked if Father Jerry could help them line up Spanish-speaking priests for their Sunday Mass. Yeager leaned back in his chair and calmly answered, You people are doing just fine. I won't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
De la Vega then expressed his fears that if they failed to find a priest one Sunday people would not come back the next. Yeager was unmoved.
Sedillo stood up and questioned some of the financial decisions made over the course of the meeting and then asked why he had not been permitted to run for parish council. Because I don't feel you're fit" was the response, and when Sedillo, who was becoming increasingly agitated, asked why, Yeager responded, If you can't figure it out by now, then you'll never know." Sedillo pressed on, clearly badgering. Early in the history of the dispute he had written in his notes, It was obvious that the both of us are too stubborn to budge."
Other councilmembers asked Sedillo to sit down, three of them Hispanic women, and one of these curled her lip as she said, That this has gone beyond the parish is a terrible thing."
There are Hispanics who support Yeager, Anglos who do not. The Anglo members who used to come to church have left the parish," says Teresa Argel, a parishioner of 11 years. It was Father Jerry's practice to say, `If you don't like it here, walk on down the road.' We won't walk on down the road. They think we're bucking the church. We're bucking him."
One Anglo who asked not to be identified says she tangled with the Women's Club and with Father Yeager's elderly mother, and was practically run off. The [Pro-Spanish group has] already gone to the bishop," she says. What more can they do? Go to the Pope?"
There's no grievance procedure," says Sedillo. If you have a problem with the government, you can go to the courts. You can vote the rascals out. If you have a problem in the church, you can't go anywhere. You have no voice. You're at the mercy of the church."
FATHER JERRY'S VERSION of Saint Edward's history is as colorful as he is. The first priest got caught dancing with the gays with the collar on," he says. The next guy couldn't wait to get out of this parish. He ran off with a housekeeper. Then he disappears. The guy goes out jogging and disappears. Now I can't be a homosexual, I can't run off with a woman-an old woman, oh, she was ugly, I can't believe it-so I don't know how I can go out with a blaze of glory here." If his fire does light, who will replace him?
He has no intention of leaving, however. The diocese does not speculate on replacing him, and there is no evidence that a majority of his parish wants him replaced. When the bishop made his last pastoral visit to Saint Edward's, there was no indication that the parish was dissatisfied with Father Yeager," says Chancellor Davern. Father Sotelo says, I know that most of the people are with Father Jerry."
It's a small parish by Catholic standards. The two Sunday-morning English-language services average 120 to 130 people, the Spanish Mass 80 to 100. The difference in style between the warring factions is evident in their Sunday Masses. Father Yeager's pulpit style is jaunty and informal, his sermons rambling and salty. The Spanish Mass is more formal in tone, more compassionate in content; it has a choir backed by guitars. The English services have no choir, because a succession of choir directors has quit or been fired, depending on whom you talk to.
Sedillo's faction would evangelize the neighborhood's substantial Hispanic population. If the Anglos fear such an ethnic transformation, Robert de la Vega expresses the reverse paranoia of the Hispanics. What if the bishop tells the Spanish priests they can't come to our parish? They'd have to obey."
As for getting one Spanish-speaking priest to come regularly, there are simply none available.
The Hispanic population is just booming and there aren't enough priests around," says Father Sotelo. Not even the bishop can find them. They call me from all over the state and I don't know what to tell them."
YEAGER HAS HAD trouble with Hispanics in the past, specifically with factionalism in a church in El Mirage. In El Mirage, put it this way," he began. Dealing with the Mexicans is either fiesta, siesta or revolucion. One minute it's an abrazo, the next it's a stab. And this is common."
Even under fire, he continues to make such statements.
Father Yeager has not always expressed things felicitously," is Father Davern's response to Yeager's remarks. I certainly agree that his statements are unfortunate and will not help the situation." At the very least, Yeager misunderstands the power of words. I told Mike Sedillo that I thought he was doing the work of the devil," Yeager says. Sedillo, understandably, took the statement at face value. Yeager insists he didn't mean the Devil. No," he says, it just means `adversary.' That's the origin of the word."
Yeager quotes the Bible: Christ, before he celebrated the Eucharist, said, `Judas, go and do what you must do.' And then he shared a meal with him. I cannot share with that man [Sedillo]. I tried to make peace and he wouldn't do it. To me he's Judas Iscariot."
When it's suggested that Jesus also said to turn the other cheek, Yeager answers, ÔHow many people do that? I can't. Can you?"
LAST SUNDAY, instead of a homily, Yeager singled out Sedillo, Argel and de la Vega from the pulpit and called them all Judas." He cornered the three men before the next service to tell them they were yellow" for going to a yellow rag journalist." Then he returned to the pulpit and excoriated his detractors again, as a monsignor from the diocese waited to deliver the Spanish Mass.
I have a right to speak," Yeager said the next day. They went public. I have a right to go public, too."
I think it's ironic," he continued. The day the article comes out is the day Judas betrayed Christ. This is an attack on the church."
THE "RED" TAPES ... v4-15-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.