Immaculate Heartbreak

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O'Brien went to Immaculate Heart on March 26 for what parishioners expected to be an open-forum discussion of the vacant head-pastor position. Instead, he announced that Madrid would be named pastor of Immaculate Heart, while retaining his post at St. Anthony.

Despite the mounting unrest at St. Anthony, O'Brien had decided Madrid was the right man to succeed Sotelo. O'Brien promised the parish would not be weakened by the change. Masses would not be reduced; Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony would remain distinct parishes, with separate staffs.

As soon as the announcement was made, an unholy war of words broke out at Immaculate Heart. A small group of protesters calling themselves the Christian Faithful organized a demonstration outside the church and gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition, which they submitted to the diocese, calling for Corral to be named head pastor.

They also wrote a series of letters to Catholic officials, beginning with O'Brien. In an April 22, 1999, letter, the group carefully avoided criticizing Madrid, but simply urged the bishop to ask Corral to stay in Phoenix.

They say O'Brien failed to respond to their letter, so the group wrote to Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillian in Washington, D.C. They informed Cacciavillian: "We believe that, due to our Hispanic heritage, Bishop O'Brien and the diocesan staff that advise him in these matters, disrespected and gave no consideration to our feelings, needs or opinions."

On June 13, 1999, O'Brien made a surprise appearance at Immaculate Heart for the 10:30 a.m. Mass. He again endorsed Madrid, but did not take questions from the congregation.

That same day, the Christian Faithful sent another letter to O'Brien. By this time, the group was also going after Madrid. They attacked him for telling Immaculate Heart employees that they would all need to reapply for their jobs if they wanted to stay on after July 1. Group members say Madrid's action reminded them more of a number-crunching government bureaucrat than a Catholic priest.

Amid this emotional turbulence, Madrid officially became pastor at Immaculate Heart on July 1, 1999. On his first Sunday at Immaculate Heart, parishioners say, he showed up for church with a black eye. When curious parishioners asked about it, he told them that he'd been punched by a drunken teenager at a St. Anthony church-hall party that he'd gone to monitor.

Sotelo declined to comment on Madrid or the parishioners' accusations, saying he does not want to get involved in the controversy at Immaculate Heart. He will talk about the years when he was in charge there, a time when Masses increased from four on Sunday to a dozen, a time when he and others say there was a warm, welcome feeling to the church.

Corral, associate pastor for the last year of Sotelo's assignment, describes the atmosphere at Immaculate Heart similarly and says he enjoyed his time there immensely.

"I felt like in heaven," he says in a telephone interview.

Corral, who says he does not know Madrid, says it pains him to hear of not only the fire, but the animosity at Immaculate Heart.

"It's not just the church that has been burned down," he says. "I think it is very much like the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. It was a national catastrophe. The faith and the moral situation went all the way down. Because they identified with that church so much. They just loved it."

By October 1999, dissatisfaction was growing among parish regulars over what they perceived as Madrid's secretive management approach. Among the most irate were the five members of the parish's finance council, a church body that reviews parish records and helps the pastor make decisions on expenditures.

In his final bulletin to parishioners in late June 1999, Sotelo had reported that Immaculate Heart's bank balances totaled more than $346,000. Parishioners say that since then, however, financial disclosure at the parish has been scarce to nonexistent.

"Under Father Tony, we met monthly, and we used to see the documents -- bank statements, invoices and checks -- and there was never any problem with us seeing those things," says Carlos Nolasco, a former member of the finance council. (Sotelo confirms that during his pastorship, finances were strictly scrutinized by parish committees.)

"After Father Saúl took over in July 1999, there wasn't a single finance committee meeting between that date and the end of October," Nolasco says.

Madrid has also taken the unusual step of splitting up weekly donation-counting at Immaculate Heart into two groups. Rather than the traditional practice of having a single group come in Monday morning to count all of Sunday's donations, he now has one group count money from the early Masses on Sunday afternoon, while another group comes in Monday to count donations from the last two Sunday Masses. It's a move that not only defies practicality, it also prevents the money counters themselves from knowing the weekly total.

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Gilbert Garcia
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