Immaculate Heartbreak

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Madrid has told reporters of a dramatic injury sustained during the fire. But the fire department made no mention of this in its report on the blaze.

The official account says boys pounded on Madrid's door. Then the pastor went to the front of the church (apparently ignoring a closer side door) and opened the door to flames and smoke. "He closed the door and came back to the parish and called the fire department," the report says.

But a newspaper story the next day says Madrid twisted his ankle while trying to yank open a door "in a desperate attempt to save his church."

In Enormous Prayers, Madrid says he had retired to the rectory for a nap after saying four Masses that day. Alerted to the fire, he says, he ran up the stairs to the church, and entered to see a horrific sight: the altar in flames.

Kunkel asked Madrid what such an image meant to a priest: "Madrid lowers his head, searching for words . . . 'For a priest . . . ,' he begins, then trails off. 'I would imagine for many people, but for a priest . . . to see an altar up in flames, it is an indescribable event.'"

At this point, the book says, Madrid hurried downstairs to look for a fire extinguisher. In the smoky confusion, he says, he missed a step and hurt his foot. Later, he would learn it was broken.

Fire investigators ruled the blaze accidental, concluding it was likely caused by a candle in a large Advent wreath suspended over the altar. The burning wreath then fell on the altar, officials say.

Sylvia Gomez had nagging questions about the fire. And, after the blaze, she was bothered by Madrid's eagerness for publicity.

"He started coming out on TV a lot, crying and saying that he needed money," Gomez says. She adds that a laughing Madrid once told her whenever he used his crutches in public, he got things for free.

Although the church was covered by insurance, Madrid appointed church member and county supervisor Wilcox to head up the restoration committee, charged not only with planning the new, improved church, but raising money to pay for it. Madrid and others sought donations from parishioners, outside groups and businesses. (Wilcox did not respond to a New Times request for comment on this story.)

There were heartwarming news reports of the renovation efforts, and accounts of fund raisers -- simple ones like burrito sales after Masses and fancier affairs like a $75-a-plate dinner and a Renaissance-themed "magical evening," described by Wilcox in a society column.

Julian Sodari, a neighborhood activist with the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, was a member of the St. Anthony Pastoral Council. He's worried that the fund-raising effort hasn't been properly monitored.

"And my wife, who does the counting [of church collections] every Monday morning, said checks are still coming in for that purpose," Sodari says.

The fire, which had caused $125,000 in damage, had spurred enough donations to pay for a $500,000 restoration project. Two years passed before St. Anthony was renovated sufficiently enough to reopen.

But it has never been fully restored. Six years after the fire, the church still has holes in its ceiling, walls that have not been painted, doors that have not been finished, confessionals that have not been rebuilt. The stations of the cross are gone. The pews have been replaced by wooden chairs.

Madrid also rid the church of kneelers. Sodari says when Bishop O'Brien found out about that, he ordered Madrid to replace them. Parishioners raised money for the kneelers. They have yet to be installed.

During the St. Anthony renovation period, Madrid decided to tear down the three houses behind the church, forcing Gomez to close her shop. As a result, four elderly people also had to find new homes. She says Madrid told her that the church's insurance company insisted the houses be torn down, but she refuses to believe his contention.

Gomez says such experiences permanently soured her -- and other St. Anthony parishioners -- on the Catholic church. "A lot of the regular people left and we went our way," she says. "I don't go to church anymore, because St. Anthony was my church. My husband died three years ago, and that was about the last time I set foot in there."

In early 1999, the diocese announced that Father Tony Sotelo was leaving Immaculate Heart to pursue his jail and prison ministry full-time. The Reverend José Corral, his associate, had accepted an appointment in California. Suddenly, this hugely popular parish desperately needed two new pastors.

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