Immaculate Heart returning to immigrant roots
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 12, 2005
New residents finding comfort in Latino church

Jacqueline Shoyeb
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 new residents.

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 services.

At that time, all Masses were held in Latin. Only the sermons were in English or Spanish.

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 church.

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 fire."

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,"
Barrios said.

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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