Untold Arizona: Amid Discrimination, Hispanics Found Community At Immaculate Heart Of Mary Parish
Arizona became a state 108 years ago this week. KJZZ is honoring the state with another season of Untold Arizona.
For our first installment, we explored the checkered past of a church in Phoenix with roots going back almost as far as Arizona’s statehood.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary in Phoenix, there are six Sunday masses: five in Spanish and one in English. That’s because this Catholic parish on Ninth and Washington streets has a strong Hispanic community and it’s been that way for decades.
Margarita Murillo moved to Phoenix from Mexico in 1992, speaking only Spanish. The first thing she did when she got settled was seek out a Catholic church.
“I came walking with my mom and my daughters,” she said. “They gave us a very nice welcome.”
She started volunteering at Immaculate Heart and was eventually hired on part time. She said it quickly became a place she felt comfortable.
“People from Mexico, we are a people of faith,” Murillo said. “We are very involved in our faith, we care a lot about our families, so here at the Immaculate we feel like we are in our home.”
But this safe haven was built out of a history of hardship for Phoenix’s Hispanic community.
“In the early years, about half the population was Mexican [or] Mexican Americans and almost all of them were Catholic,” said Frank Barrios, a Hispanic historian with deep family roots in Arizona.
“When you go into Chase Field to buy your tickets to go in, right there is where my grandfather’s home was and my mother was born,” he said.
Just a 15-minute walk from Immaculate Heart to Third and Monroe streets stands Saint Mary’s Basilica.
When it was dedicated in 1915, Saint Mary’s was the only Catholic parish in Phoenix and the pastor at the time made a controversial decision.
“He said all Spanish functions will be in the cellar, Mass included, and English Mass will be upstairs in the main Cathedral,” Barrios said. “It was a major issue. It divided the Mexican community with everybody else. So that’s when they started saying well we’ll just build our own church.”
And they did. Immaculate Heart of Mary was dedicated in 1928 and Spanish-speaking priests were brought in to oversee the masses. But the discrimination extended far beyond the church doors and well past Phoenix’s early years.
“At 8-years-old, we were all playing and the one little girl said let’s go to my house,” Barrios said. “So we all went up there and then she put her hand out and said you can’t come into my house because you’re Mexican and my mother won’t allow Mexicans in our house.’”
Sally Feight is the daughter of Adam Diaz, the first Hispanic man elected to the Phoenix City Council. She said her grandmother helped make the new church a reality.
“She was outraged at being relegated to the basement of St. Mary’s Church, and she was a wonderful cook,” Feight said. “She and some of the ladies did a lot of sales and raised as much money as they could toward the new church.”
Feight is now 82 years old and, like Barrios, she remembers a time when her family was not always welcome.
“We couldn’t swim in swimming pools except for one day a week because they drained the pool that night,” Feight said.
She suffered another blow in the mid-'50s while attending St. Mary’s High School.
“There were just a few of us Hispanics that went to school there, and I had a boyfriend who was Anglo.
His mother took him aside and said it’s OK to date her, but not to marry because she’s Hispanic and you’re not," Feight said.
In April of 2000, the members of Immaculate Heart faced a new challenge. Some of the candles caught the altar on fire and destroyed most of the building’s interior.
“We thought people wouldn’t come anymore, that it would be debilitating to the parish,” Murillo said. “But no, on the contrary, masses were done in the hall and we all started to work to remodel.”
Today, Immaculate Heart of Mary remains a home base for Murillo and others like her. As they draw strength from God and the community they’ve built.