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Community works to save historic Sacred Heart Church in Phoenix

Posted at 9:13 AM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 12:44:09-05

Amid the roar of the planes flying overhead, Sacred Heart Church stands alone near 16th Street and Buckeye Road in Phoenix. It is all that is left of what was once the Golden Gate Barrio.

Abe Arvizu, Jr. grew up in Golden Gate and. "I vividly remember running up and down the alleys with the other kids. I mean, that was just something to do," he recalled. He also said neighbors were more like family.

"Whether, when you needed a glass of water, you were hungry, or you wanted, you know, just to sit down and rest; you could do that in anybody's yard or anybody's house, and that was part of growing up."

Attending mass at Sacred Heart Church was a big part of life in the barrio. "I would go sit with my grandfather at the back end, that's where you got to see where the different families sit in the pews...usually the families had a certain place they would sit," Arvizu remembered.

The church was built in the 1950s at the insistence of Father Albert Braun, a World War II veteran.

He knew those who lived in Golden Gate would have to walk more than two miles to get to mass, even in the summer.

Author and historian Dr. Pete Dimas said “Father Al,” as he was called, knew the need was great.

Dr. Dimas said Father Al started ministering to dozens of families.

"He brings nuns to start teaching catechism and, next thing you know, he has several thousand parishioners... In other words, it was an area that had been ignored basically."

At first, services were held in a ramada with a dirt floor and a roof made of palm leaves.

But then, with Father Al, the neighbors got to work building something that would last.

The church came together at the hands of those who it was meant to serve.

Arvizu said, "yeah, there was construction companies and all that...but we were poor, we didn't have that, and so basically most of the labor came from... the community, the manual labor."

His late father, Abe Arvizu Sr., was among the parishioners who worked on the building along with other families in the neighborhood.

"My uncles and my dad did the electrical work in the church and the surrounding buildings, and so many other families, their dad or their grandpa, did something; whether it was the Contreras' doing the trim work in the concrete or it was it was someone putting in cement for flooring," Arvizu recalled.

He said the women were just as vital.

"I think a lot of people forget that. Whether they were making the food, bringing water, or whether they were there for support or just getting the husband to go to work because you have to remember, they work at a job. And then they come home and they'd be tired and then, you know, come the weekend, or the evenings or whenever when someone wasn't working, you are working on the church."

Brick by brick the church came together, and countless weddings, baptisms, and funerals were held there throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

But in the mid-1980s, after Father Al passed, the Diocese of Phoenix sold the church and surrounding land to the City of Phoenix for the expansion of Sky Harbor Airport. The church was going to be torn down.

Dr. Dimas said the families who'd lived there were not going to let it go quietly.

They held the first Christmas Day mass in front of the church in 1987. A tradition that stands, to this day, apart from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2012, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2018, the Diocese of Phoenix reached a deal with the city for restoration and the nonprofit Chicanos Por La Causa is working with the diocese on the years-long project.

CPLC President and CEO David Adame said, "we'll do it in phases, so we have a certain milestone that we need to achieve in order to maintain development... so we've asked for that extension...and we're still losing time because of the pandemic right now."

He hopes the decades-long fight to save the church will inspire others to know what is possible when communities come together.

"It shows that if anybody else can do things, we can do things," Adame said. "The church has had much more significant than just bricks and mortar."