Immaculate Heart returning to
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 12, 2005
New residents finding comfort in Latino church
Dios, La Virgen.
Those and other Spanish words drifted from a small group of parishioners up to
the church's vaulted ceiling, bouncing down off the walls and finally echoing
between the wooden pews.
Early morning Mass had just ended at Immaculate Heart of Mary in downtown
Phoenix, but the dozen Latino parishioners continued to pray in unison with
knees on the pew's pads. Many placed baby Jesus figurines at the foot of the
Catholic church's altar.
"Every day we pray for everyone, for all the needs there are in these days,"
parishioner Leon Manuel Marquez said after the prayers. "We are here for the
Spanish Mass. We feel more comfortable here because of the language."
Marquez is like most worshipers at Immaculate Heart, a Mexican immigrant with
almost no English skills who was drawn to the 76-year-old church because it has
always been for "los Mexicanos."
A handful of long-standing Mexican-American families remain with the church, but
Immaculate Heart, at Ninth and Washington streets in downtown Phoenix, is
largely returning to its immigrant roots as Phoenix absorbs wave after wave of
Given its illustrious history - the
church was built by Latinos for Latinos in 1928 - the pride parishioners have in
Immaculate Heart is easy to understand. Immaculate Heart was the answer to the
segregation Phoenix Latinos faced at St. Mary's Basilica in the early 1900s.
"It's still the church of choice in terms of people coming over and getting
started here, just because of the history of the church," said Ray Escobar, 57,
whose family history with the church dates to before its founding.
"If you were to ask the immigrants coming into Arizona, they would know about
Immaculate Heart and what it stands for," he said.
The church recently completed celebrating 75 years of service in the community
and took time to look back at its beginnings.
In May 1915, Father Novatus Benzing, a German immigrant, declared the upstairs
of St. Mary's Basilica only for English Masses, the basement for all Spanish
At that time, all Masses were held in Latin. Only the sermons were in English or
Latino residents petitioned and protested to be allowed to hold Mass upstairs,
but Father Novatus wouldn't budge.
Fund-raising for a new church began, and 13 years later, Inmaculado Corazón de
María was born. It was a refuge for the poor and prominent mostly Mexican
families, who could now worship freely in their own language.
Today the church, set among commercial buildings and buzzing traffic, meets the
demands of 5,000 worshipers every Sunday. But the families that started with
Immaculate are fading.
"That church has always been the focal point for many Hispanics in the Valley;
the entire life of many people have gone through that church," said Escobar, who
was baptized in the church. "It serviced first and second generation and third
generation, and now you have a complete wave of new immigrants into Arizona, a
new set of immigrants."
Reasons for those older families leaving vary, but land development, death and
recent clergy changes are key points.
Parishioner Frank Barrios' family has been at Immaculate Heart since its
inception. His European grandfather, a freighter, helped establish and fund the
Barrios, an unofficial historian and a Central Arizona Project board member,
said many of the worshipers left around 2000, when Father Saúl Madrid, a new
priest who looked to shake things up at the church, took over and a fire
destroyed most of the building.
"The Mexican people would close the doors and people would wait in line to go to
Mass," Barrios said. "People were coming in from all over. That ended after the
Parishioners started going to other parishes while the church was closed for
restoration. Many never came back.
"People didn't feel the same warmth as they did before," Barrios said.
The parishioners were divided and worried about the future of Immaculate Heart.
The historical beauty was lost, and a new priest threatened their Mexican
tradition, some parishioners said. Even after the restoration and after Madrid
left, people didn't return.
"The controversy with Madrid drove some people away, and some people thought
that the church didn't have the Hispanic aura that the original one did,"
To some, the answer to strengthening the church seems to be once again coming
from the immigrants.
"This church is considered almost like a basilica for the Spanish-speaking
people. They come from all over," said parishioner Encarnacion V. Hernandez, 65.
The church's Spanish colonial architecture is similar to churches in Mexico,
Hernandez said, and attracts new immigrants through word of mouth.
Slowly the church is unifying again as more fill the pews and attend the youth
groups and Bible studies. Plans for a permanent priest and order of nuns for
next year is another hope keeping the church moving forward.
For immigrants like Leon Manuel Marquez, who visits the parish a few times a
week, Immaculate Heart of Mary is a sanctuary for the Mexican culture and
language, just as it was more than 75 years ago.
"The Hispanics prefer this church," he said. "They are more comfortable here.
These Spanish Masses are said from the heart."
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