Immaculate Heartbreak

The Reverend Saúl Madrid was agitated.

Two weeks had passed since a fire charred the interior of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in downtown Phoenix. Ever since the blaze, Madrid, the church's pastor, had heard questions and innuendoes swirl like buzzards around his head.

"They say I've been stealing from the parish, and that I set the fire to benefit myself," Madrid proclaimed to his Sunday congregation in his clipped, rhythmic Spanish. "They say I'm homosexual and that I have a lover. And that I'm taking money from the parish for my lover's business."

A newcomer to the church might have been shocked by the outburst. But to Immaculate Heart's regular churchgoers, Madrid's rant, while stunning, was not too surprising.

For the past year, since Madrid took over as pastor, the parish considered by many to be the spiritual hub of the Valley's Hispanic community has been increasingly shaken by dissent and dissatisfaction. Some parishioners are openly contemptuous of Madrid, even going so far as to investigate his personal life.

The discontent at Immaculate Heart on Washington Street is an uncanny echo of the unrest that has long dogged St. Anthony, its sister parish about a mile away on South First Avenue, where Madrid also serves as pastor. Problems there escalated after a similar fire in 1994, also on Madrid's watch, and the ensuing debate over how best to rebuild the 52-year-old church.

Now, it seems history is repeating itself: Madrid has begun a restoration process organized the same way as the one he set up at St. Anthony. He is again appealing to the public for substantial donations to help rebuild the church. "This is a tremendous opportunity for our community to do some things that would have never been done. There is no other way to think of it," he told a recent gathering of church members.

The April 17 fire at Immaculate Heart, a majestic 72-year-old, nationally registered historic building, was just the latest major upheaval at the church.

These days, Madrid is caught up in investigations by two federal agencies and the Phoenix Fire Department. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms continues to examine the fire in an effort to determine a cause for the blaze. Phoenix fire investigators, who are working with ATF, say they can't rule out arson.

The FBI also has been talking to people who know the pastor, looking into the possibility of financial improprieties involving church funds.

On April 30, Madrid succumbed to the stress, venting at his doubters.

He'd been interrogated for hours by federal agents, he told the gathering. They'd asked him to take a polygraph test. Moreover, he knew some parishioners were openly suggesting the fires were related and that he had set them. He called the allegations idle rumors.

Madrid and Bishop Thomas O'Brien of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix refused to talk to New Times about problems in the parish and allegations being raised by church members. Madrid did not return phone messages left with church staff or respond to a faxed summary of issues being raised in this story.

Marge Injasoulian, director of communications for the diocese, said O'Brien would not talk with New Times because the diocese believes the newspaper has in the past "demonstrated a willingness to serve as a sounding board for disgruntled parishioners" and that prior articles have engaged in "a journalism of personal destruction rather than public information."

For this story, New Times reporters interviewed more than 25 church members, several priests, former employees and longtime parishioners. Over the past two months, reporters have attended services and a restoration meeting at Madrid's churches. New Times also obtained letters written to and from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix about problems, reviewed reports and records on file with seven government agencies and talked with representatives of four law enforcement agencies about the fires and other allegations.

The investigation into the Immaculate Heart fire remains open, and fire officials haven't reached any conclusion about what started the blaze. A probe of the 1994 St. Anthony fire found no evidence of arson.

But some of the actions taken by Madrid at the churches and in his personal life appear to violate church rules as well as official directives governing how priests should conduct themselves.

Madrid has many supporters among the ranks of the faithful. Some declined to discuss Madrid and the controversy.

A few who did talk to New Times defended Madrid as a charismatic, open-minded pastor doing an admirable job under difficult circumstances.

But some also describe him as secretive, controlling and rarely available to parishioners.

Veteran journalist Thomas Kunkel profiled Madrid -- and 27 other priests -- in his 1998 book Enormous Prayers -- A Journey Into the Priesthood. Recently named dean of the University of Maryland School of Journalism, Kunkel spent only a day with Madrid. He remembers him as open and likable, but surprisingly cosmopolitan.