Sacred Heart, sacred memories

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By Pete R. Dimas

It’s still there, just west of the airport, alone, in the middle of a vacant field on the northeast corner of 16th Street and Buckeye Road. It’s the Old Sacred Heart Church.

Since 1987, it comes alive once a year on Christmas Day. The church had its last regular mass on December 29, 1985 – a consequence of a massive dislocation, in the name of progress, of the Golden Gate community and the other old barrios surrounding the church, some 6,000 people.

Generations of families saw their homes leveled and their web of community ripped apart, because the land upon which they had built their lives was needed for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s operations. The vecinos were determined to exact at least some measure of respect for the memory embedded in the soil where their loved ones had been born, had been raised, and many had died. The focus, the symbol, of all those memories was the church they themselves had built.

The City of Phoenix had determined that the most efficient use of the land it had purchased required the demolition of Sacred Heart. Abe Arvizu, Sr., a respected leader of the Golden Gate community, led the movement to show the city that the community was also determined to keep Old Sacred Heart standing. The way to do that was to hold Christmas Day mass in that beloved building. But the city refused the use of the church. So, not to be denied, the mass was held outside the front door of the church on a cold and rainy day that saw the sun appear only for the duration of the mass. With that show of determination, a tradition was born.

Golden Gate was not the oldest barrio in the city. Because Mexicans played a major role in the founding of the Valley of the Sun and making it a prosperous place to live, some of the earliest barrios, those located around St. Mary’s Catholic Church for example, existed in what is now downtown Phoenix. But they have been erased. Like many of the numerous barrios in the Valley, Golden Gate grew in an area that was agricultural in nature and away from Anglo areas that, by means of real estate covenants and police enforcement, excluded persons of Mexican descent. Extended families lived within the barrios and developed community cohesion, all the while isolated and ignored by most of the Anglo residents of the region.

What made Golden Gate unique was how it grew after World War II. The barrios produced a disproportionate number of combat veterans who proved themselves equal to anyone. I remember standing in front of Sacred Heart with my friend Joe Torres as he pointed to where homes used to be and said of the former residents, “He won the Bronze Star … he got two Purple Hearts … He was awarded the Silver Star. Over there was a Bushmaster …” If it had not been for Phoenix resident Silvestre Herrera, who was Mexican-born and a Mexican citizen, Arizona would not have had the pride of a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in World War II.

The veteranos returning from the war knew that organizing was the key to victory in war and they weren’t about to let the traditional Anglo vision of them continue to limit the possibilities for their families, so they organized. Many of the veterans, including those from Golden Gate, became politically active through the creation of, and participation in, American Legion Post 41, and thus broke down segregationist barriers in Phoenix.

The other catalyst that helped unify the area that became Sacred Heart Parish was Father Albert Braun, O.F.M. Father Albert was a heroic figure in War I and World War II. He was loved in Catholic and veteran circles, locally and nationally, and he knew how to organize communities. Post 41 made him a lifetime member and chaplain. He came from St. Mary’s, the church that in 1915 had humiliated the Mexicans who had built the church by relegating them to the basement rather than allowing them into the beautiful main church upstairs. Father Albert reintegrated the power of the church with the power of the vecinos, which resulted in a modernization of the barrio and included political influence that transcended the neighborhood. Later, in the 1960s, when students from Arizona State University became involved with the community, they were joining forces with an already active Sacred Heart Parish, which, through Father Frank Yoldi, provided support for what became Chicanos Por La Causa. When César Chávez held his famous 1972 fast, Sacred Heart Parish supported Chávez by providing the facilities at Santa Rita Hall. It was during this period that national civil rights and political leaders came to Phoenix to show support for Chávez and la causa.

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