Monday, May 2, 2011

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's Church, circa late 1800s (photo courtesy of Tempe Historical Museum).
St. Mary's Church rebuilt, circa 1903 (photo courtesy of Tempe Historical Museum)

St. Mary's Church construction - demolition of current Newman Center Building, April 2011 (photo by Laura Tamez)
230 East University Drive, Tempe, AZ 85281

St Mary’s Church or “the Old Church” as it is referred to by the All Saints Catholic Newman Center Parishioners is the oldest Church in Valley, located on the corner of College and University.  It was built by professional brick layers, and members of the community in 1903 and still stands  with much of the original building.
After the Mexican American War the United States acquired much of what is today the American South West including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California and Texas. “American Settlers who had an “eye” on the west wanted to isolate New Mexico and form a white buffer state between populated New Mexico (60,000 Mexicans) and the Mexican State of Sonora…Congress also did not want to admit New Mexico because the Hispanic Roman Catholic population seemed ‘un American’.  These conditions made the development of Arizona as a territory and later as a state distinct from other states in the South West.(Mosqueda) Between 1870 and 1900 as settlers began to move into the area that is now Tempe about half the population was Hispanic. 
 William Kirkland a pioneer settler of the area “encouraged the Mexican laborers who had worked on the Kirkland-McKinney Canal to build a community on the southeast side of the Tempe Butte. He donated eighty acres of land for the townsite, and the sale of lots raised money to build an adobe church. To the White community, San Pablo became known as East Tempe or Mexican Town”( As the community of San Pablo continued to grow the need for a bigger chapel presented itself. There were not many Anglo American Catholics in the area at the time although there were some prominent Tempe citizens such as John Curry, J .J. Hodnett, Winchester Miller, and James T. Priest. that participated in the building project.  Father Severinus Westhoff, O.F.M., a German immigrant who had come to the Tempe in 1895, and who had started missions in both Scottsdale and Guadalupe headed up the project. The strength of the Catholic Church among Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the South West was a more of a cultural attachment than a strong religious commitment, however historically to be “Mexican was to be Catholic”(Mosqueda 90). Father Westhoff’s presence in Arizona is typical of the Catholic missionary experience among Mexican and Mexican American communities from the colonial era on. “To combat nativisim, the (Catholic) Church tried to “Americanize it’s flock. This happened not only in the southwest but throughout the country with Irish, Italians and other however European immigrants were largely volunteer immigrants while many Mexicans considered the southwest to be a part of occupied Mexico hence the “Americanization” was met with determined resistance”(Mosqueda 90)  The highly segregated nature of the San Pablo Barrio and community was such that most of the residents were Mexican and therefore Catholics. According to a firsthand reports “when the father decided to build a new church, there were not very many American Catholics at that time, but there were a lot of Mexicans already…and so that church was mostly built by the Mexican families -- not only money, but labor as well -They knew what they were doing, because they had experience. Most of 'em had come to Tempe before my time, from Mexico”(Pete Estrada). Men and young teenage boys helped in the construction of the Church from firing the bricks at a small mill that they constructed about two miles away from the site of the Church and laying them down for the building itself. The project was directed by a professional brick mason from Tucson and a brick layer from Phoenix but most of the labor was volunteer work done by the families in the community. Construction was finished in 1903 and the Church was dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and named St. Mary’s Church.
In 1932 the Bishop of Tucson, Daniel J. Gercke announced a decree to erect a new movable parish to serve Tempe that would be named Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The [old] Church became the home of this parish. “Between 19271941, the church was remodeled and a parish house built. Thereafter, a Catholic school and convent were also established. It was in the mid 1950s a new school and rectory were built on Rural Road, and in 1968 a new church, which carried with it the name of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The "Old Church" passed into the care of the Newman Catholic Student Center” (“Our History”). Around this same time after World War II enrollment at ASU increased rather quickly. In order to build new dormitories the college started buying all of the land north of University Drive. This area had been the largest and oldest of the Tempe barrios. Many of the displaced families moved to other areas of Tempe, the Salt River Valley and beyond (“Hispanic History of Tempe). The Church was added to the national register of historic places in 1972, also in the 1970s and 80s funds were raised to bring the building up to building code regulations as to be used as a place of worship once again by the community.                                 
Today as the Newman center embarks on a giant building project that has been in the works  for the last ten years for a new 250 seat chapel new office space and student center. The old Church currently serves as the only worship space hosting 7 masses every weekend. Under the direction of Father Robert Clements the church is home as a place of worship once again to Latino students and community members at ASU. An ongoing Latino outreach initiative begun this year including the addition of Spanish mass once a month, the Latino Catholic community at ASU and at the Newman Center in growing and taking roots once again.

- Laura Tamez and Katelain Saunders

Narrator: PETE ESTRADA Interviewer: HELEN HARTER Date of Interview: June 7, 1973Tempe Historical Museum Oral Histories” “Tempe History Museum” April 25, 2011. City of Tempe.
“Tempe Historic Property survey”. “Tempe History Museum”. April 25, 2011. City of Tempe. I Number: OH – 05Copyright © 2002

“Our History, Old Saint Mary’s Church”. April 25, 2011. All Saints Catholic Newman Center

Mosqueda Lawrence J. “Twentieth Century Arizona, Hispanics, and the Catholic Church”. U.S. Catholic Historian, Vol. 9, No. 1/2, Hispanic Catholics: Historical Explorations and Cultural Analysis  (Winter - Spring, 1990), pp. 87-103. Catholic University of America Press.

“Hispanic History of Tempe”. “Tempe History Museum”. April 25, 2011. City of Tempe.

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