New Life Could Be Coming To Old Church In Phoenix
Three decades after Catholic parishioners fought to keep Phoenix from demolishing their church, a new fight is underway. It involves an exclusive agreement between the city and a community development corporation that could determine the future of the old Sacred Heart Church.
A steady stream of planes soars above the northeast corner of 16th Street and Buckeye Road. Passengers who look down might wonder why a single brick building with boarded windows, and surrounded by a barbed wire fence, stands alone on such a large dirt lot.
In the 1980s, Phoenix used eminent domain to buy 28 acres of land for Sky Harbor Airport’s expansion. The city forced hundreds of residents to leave the area known as the Golden Gate Barrio. Bulldozers leveled homes, but the mostly Mexican-American parishioners fought to save Sacred Heart Church, a church they built in the mid-1950s by collecting dollars, coins and even bricks from the community. Today, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes it safe from demolition, but its future remains uncertain.
The New Plan
At a City Council meeting in July, Mayor Greg Stanton, Vice Mayor Laura Pastor and Councilman Daniel Valenzuela requested the city begin exclusive negotiations with Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) for a long-term lease. The proposal would give the nonprofit 90 days to come up with a plan for the city-owned property, including the church. The idea is to create job opportunities and provide services like retail, childcare and health care.
“We take a comprehensive approach,” said David Adame, president and CEO of Chicanos Por La Causa. “It’s not just about the church, it’s about the overall area to make sure the programs and services that empower our community are delivered to our communities so they can become self-sufficient.”
But, some people, including Sergio Sierra, don’t like the idea of a non-Catholic entity shaping the future of a building with such a significant past.
“I have no interest in telling you or CPLC what to do with the surrounding land as long as it’s used to help the community,” he said. ”But, the church should not be given to a company who does not represent the faith community.”
While Chicanos Por La Causa says its goal is to preserve the building, that’s not good enough for parishioners like Antonio Hernandez.
“To hand over the still consecrated Catholic church to anyone other than the Catholic Church threatens desecration and by law would require proper demolition of the altar and disposition of holy relics that are still buried on that site,” he said.
But, Councilman Michael Nowakowski, said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix determined all relics had been removed years ago and, the building is no longer recognized as a Catholic church.
“I’m a proud Catholic and I worked for the Diocese during all those hardships and during all that where I listened to the community that was upset with the Diocese because we sold the property. We sold the school first then they were going to sell the church and that’s where the whole Sacred Heart Braun Society came together and it was Mr. Pete Dimas helped to make it a historic landmark so that the city couldn’t tear it down,” he said. “There was conflict between the community at that time and the Catholic Church and you know it was sad.”
Over the past 30 years, Nowakowski said the Diocese has not expressed interest in buying or leasing the old Sacred Heart Church. Other ideas have been discussed by the city and developers. At least four times, Adame pointed out.
“All four attempts failed,” he said.” Each time, CPLC stood in line, following the processes, participating in RFP’s, spending money on the applications, possessing the experience, skills, cultural sensitivity to develop the land and each time CPLC was effectively ignored.”
The Next Step
But, not this time. By a 7-2 vote, the council approved an exclusive negotiation period with Chicanos Por La Causa, with the understanding the developer will make a good faith effort to engage with the Diocese. A plan could come before the council this fall.