CHANDLER — Nearly 1,200 parishioners filled the church May 7 for the first-ever Mass at St. Juan Diego Church, an opening that reflected the Diocese of Phoenix’s continued growth as well as that of the south Chandler area.
“I never built my own home, but I can say I finally built a house. I hope you like it,” said Fr. Dan McBride, pastor, as robust applause rose from the standing-room-only congregation.
The occasion marked a 12-year journey for St. Mary Parish, which includes St. Juan Diego, and gave many of its 4,700 or so families a church closer to their homes.
“It’s lovely, it’s been a long time coming,” smiled Kristin Stoft as she, her husband and four children stood outside the $7.2 million structure that took a little more than a year to complete. It is Chandler’s third Catholic church, joining St. Mary and St. Andrew the Apostle.
St. Juan Diego, for whom the church is named, was a native of Mexico who experienced three visions of Mary in 1531. News of the apparitions, confirmed by Church leaders, helped draw millions of Indians to the faith and eventually led to Juan Diego’s canonization July 31, 2002.
The story of St. Juan Diego Church began shortly thereafter when the diocese began planning for a new place of worship in the area, said Fr. McBride.
“It was a 10-acre plot of dirt,” he recalled.
On Nov. 28, 2004, the parish began celebrating Mass in the gymnasium at Navarette Elementary School in Chandler with about 300 families, about 5.8 miles away. They would continue doing so as the parish raised funds and planned for construction of the new church.
Erika Brady, 16, was around 4 when the building plans were first announced.
“My parents have been talking about this church ever since I can remember, so it’s really cool to come and see it.”
With a light beige interior and dark brown trim exterior, the building employs simple traditional Spanish-style design elements. Inside, its ceiling rises 38 feet above ground level at its highest points.
“It’s a beautiful ceiling; it’s like the walls go up to heaven,” Fr. McBride said.
The absence of several items, including the crucifix behind the altar and the Stations of the Cross, indicates just how new the building is. They are expected to arrive within a couple of weeks.
Fr. McBride said he went to Mexico himself to pick up the 400-pound altar, which he drove back to Arizona using the parish’s 17-foot-long box truck.
Although St. Juan Diego was equipped to seat 930, Sunday capacity will grow to 1,150 once the building is complete, Fr. McBride said.
And, that’s not all.
“One of the nice things about this church is it’s expandable,” he pointed out to the congregation, noting the rear wall can be torn down and extended 40 feet.
St. Juan Diego Church
3200 S. Cooper Rd., Chandler
- 4 p.m. Saturday Vigil — English
- 8 a.m. Sunday (beginning May 21) — English
- 10 a.m. Sunday — English
- 11:30 a.m. Sunday — Spanish
Design elements aside, the church will serve a broader role: helping those within its walls focus their minds and hearts on the reason they came in the first place.
“We are the flock of Christ. Ultimately, the shepherd of our souls is Jesus. Jesus is why this church was built,” Fr. McBride told the congregation on Good Shepherd Sunday.
Earlier, in a separate interview, he explained how the elements of a church building can help lead people into the experience of worship at Mass.
“When they see the crosses and a beautiful altar, they know this place is so sacred and say ‘This is a place we meet Jesus.’ You can’t do that forever in a gym.”
Mick McLaughlin, 72, had been attending Mass at Navarette, and looks forward to continuing the weekly hour-long drive from his home in Florence.
“This is far, but it’s an amazing group of people. We have felt so much at home here — from the people to the priests. This is home.”