St. Mary's: A church divided
Arizona Republic
March 10, 2008


Scott Craven


There is no one event that would forever mark the divide between Mexicans and non-Hispanics in Phoenix, because the clash is as complicated as the cultures involved.

But in 1915, the decision by a Catholic priest to separate services by language and order Spanish services to the church basement still stands out as a turning point in worsening relations between communities.

"To this day there are some Mexican families still bitter with what happened," said Frank Barrios, author of Mexicans in Phoenix, which documents Mexicans' place in the city's history.
In 1915, Father Novatus Benzing and his congregation dedicated the new Catholic church. St. Mary's, which had replaced a modest church built largely by Mexicans on land donated by Mexican merchants, was the pride of the community.

But at the dedication or shortly after, Barrios said, Benzing made this surprising proclamation: English-only services would be held in the main chapel upstairs; Spanish services were to be conducted in the basement.

The Mexican community took it as a direct insult, Barrios said.

"Here it was, the church they helped to build, and they were relegated to the basement," he said. "Many families would have their confirmations or baptisms in the basement. They thought it was in extremely bad taste."

Thirteen years later, these same Mexican families would be standing proudly outside another new church being dedicated, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, a Catholic church built by and for the Hispanic congregation.

But the hurt remained.

It may have been that Benzing wanted to be sensitive to Mexican culture, ensuring that Spanish-only services remained despite a growing Anglo population, said Father Tim Danzer of the Phoenix Diocese. Benzing, a German immigrant, had come to Phoenix from Cincinnati, where ethno-centric churches were the norm. One neighborhood could support several churches, each serving a different culture, be it German, Polish or Romanian.

"He (Benzing) also could have made that decision because of the workload," Danzer said. "By splitting services, it's not so taxing on one priest. You can spread it out."

Though, Danzer added, "racism likely played a part" in Benzing's decision. But it's impossible to say if those feelings stemmed from Benzing or his congregation.

Jose Burruel, 83, of Phoenix, was just a child when he attended Mass at St. Mary's, but distinctly remembers meeting in the basement. The segregation was more a product of the times than the church, Burruel realized as he looked back. Benzing likely was reacting to the wishes of his fairly well-to-do White congregation.

But Burruel felt the sting as late as 1980, when his mother, Carmen, attended the funeral services of a friend at St. Mary's.

"My wife (Frances Ann) took her that day and my mother started heading toward the basement," said Burruel, a former Arizona State University professor and school administrator. "My wife says, 'No Nana, we're upstairs.' My mother tells her, 'No, we're not allowed up there.'

"There are churches today that offer separate English and Spanish services, but that's to make everyone feel comfortable. People have a choice. It's another thing to force them to do something."

To put the 1915 situation into context, it's necessary to go back to 1887, when the railroad arrived in Phoenix.

Anglo influx

A city once confined to a comfortable, relatively equal mix of non-Hispanic and Mexican settlers soon experienced a large influx of Anglos from the Midwest and East, people unfamiliar with Mexican culture.

When Benzing arrived in 1896, the Catholic congregation was composed of about 15 Anglo families and more than 100 Mexican families, Barrios said. The priest's job was to rebuild the crumbling adobe church built by Mexican residents in 1881.

With little money at his disposal, Benzing oversaw construction of a "temporary" church consisting of a large basement sanctuary topped with a wooden structure that would be replaced once enough money was raised.

As the city's cultural balance changed in the early 20th century, so did relations between Mexicans and non-Hispanics, Barrios said. Mixed marriages were not as common, and the percentage of bilingual speakers dropped. Anglos soon were the majority, and most were unfamiliar with the Hispanic culture.

Mexicans, already feeling threatened as English-only laws were passed and fewer of their businesses thrived, were sent reeling in 1915 upon the completion of St. Mary's basilica when Benzing announced his lingual-based separation, Barrios said.

It wasn't that Mexicans would have to pray in poor conditions. The well-appointed basement included pews and altar, serving as a primary area of worship for nearly a decade.

Nor were Mexicans banished from the upstairs sermon. English-speaking Hispanics were welcome to the English sermon (at the time, Mass was conducted in Latin).

Still, the intent was clear, Barrios said. What remains unclear is whether Benzing made the decision himself or at the behest of his Anglo congregation.

New church plans

"It doesn't appear that Benzing was a bigot," Barrios said, noting the priest was bilingual. "He was well-liked in the Mexican community. Maybe it was the Anglos in the church. After all, they were the ones who had the money and donated most to the new church. He may have been trying to appease them."

The matter was front-page news for weeks as Phoenix struggled with its identity. The controversy stretched on for years.

The matter would be resolved by Antimo Nebreda, a Spanish priest who arrived in Phoenix in 1925. Nebreda came with a contingency of Spanish priests given charge over the Mexican laity. He arrived with a plan to build a new church for the Spanish-speaking congregation.

Land was found just a few blocks from St. Mary's. Construction began in January 1928 and by the end of that year, Immaculate Heart Church hosted its first Mass to the delight of parishioners.

The two churches remain active today, and Immaculate Heart continues to serve a largely Hispanic congregation.

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