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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Kiefer