Immaculate Heartbreak

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Finance-council members were so frustrated that, by fall, they had written a letter to O'Brien. In November, the bishop sent two men to Immaculate Heart to discuss ways for Madrid and the finance council to work together. It was agreed that they would wait until after the Christmas holidays, and then reconvene in January.

"Prior to the January meeting, we sent a letter to Father Saúl, requesting certain pieces of information, so we could have them for that meeting," says another former finance-council member, who wants to remain anonymous. "He never responded to the letter."

Former finance-council members say when they met with Madrid in January, they asked to see these documents, and the pastor refused to turn them over.

"He flat-out told us we didn't have a right to see it, didn't have a need to see it," the former council member says. "He had a couple of pieces of paper that had the amount of money we'd collected for the month, but there were no official bank documents that we could see, to see if there was really money there."

Finance-council members wrote to O'Brien, expressing their concerns. They say diocesan representatives told them that if they couldn't work with Madrid, that perhaps they should quit. Before they had a chance to do so, Madrid sent identical letters to all five council members, dismissing them from their duties.

The letters, dated February 18, 2000, made reference to the finance council's correspondence with O'Brien, pointedly quoting their use of the phrases "deep mistrust" and "a severe credibility issue." Such thoughts, Madrid argued, "will render us both incapable of fulfilling our ministry positions effectively. For this reason, I am dismissing you from any and all responsibility to the parish finance council."

Since the dismissal of the council, Immaculate Heart has continued to operate without any financial accountability to parishioners. In response to criticism over the dismissals, Madrid has begun to publicly refer to one of his supporters, Angel Torres, as a finance-council member. But insiders allege this is an artificial attempt to defuse criticism, and insist Madrid has yet to share any of the church's financial records with parishioners.

Disbanding the council would seem to put Madrid afoul of both the Code of Canon Law and diocesan practices. Canon 537 states: "Each parish is to have a finance council which is regulated by universal law as well as norms issued by the diocesan bishop." The Phoenix diocese, in its list of guidelines, stipulates that a parish finance council "should have a minimum of five members."

Such concerns about parish finances are intensified by what some parishioners see as exorbitant pricing practices on Madrid's part. They say he has charged as much as $500 for quinceañera Masses, a staggering figure considering that most of his parishioners are blue-collar workers with very little money to spare. By comparison, most Valley Catholic churches charge a small stipend of $50 or less and sometimes nothing for quinceañeras, a Hispanic celebration of a girl's 15th birthday.

Madrid also rents out the halls at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony for $2,000 and $1,800 a night, respectively, according to former finance-council members. And his frequent Saturday-night rentals of the St. Pius X Mission in south Phoenix for parties have annoyed members of the Black Catholic Ministry, which uses St. Pius X two Sundays each month for Masses.

"A couple of times, parents have come in with their kids on Sundays and seen 30 or 40 beer cans in the courtyard that they've had to pick up," says Keith Williams, a council member with the Black Catholic Ministry of Phoenix. "To me, it's a disgrace, and Father Saúl knows about it."

One of Immaculate Heart's biggest financial controversies in the past year concerns Madrid's handling of new doors for the church's entrance.

Because the year 2000 is a jubilee year in the Catholic church -- an event that occurs every 25 years -- and Immaculate Heart was designated by O'Brien as one of seven holy churches in the diocese, part of a special pilgrimage, Madrid decided to order new doors to greet the expected flood of visitors who would enter the church this year.

Parishioners say he did so without receiving approval from the parish. He then announced that parishioners would have to raise $35,000 to cover the cost of the doors.

The move confounded longtime parishioners, because the church's wooden doors had been part of Immaculate Heart since it was built, and had historic value.

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Gilbert Garcia
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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin