A pair of photos compares the former sanctuary and altar of St. Edward the Confessor to its new one. Courtesy Ernesto Ibarra

By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun

PHOENIX — In the residential neighborhoods of southeastern Phoenix, just south of the commercial and industrial areas where Interstate 10 curves away from Sky Harbor International Airport, the faithful who worship with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass – the traditional Latin Mass – have a new home where they can celebrate their Catholic faith.

St. Edward the Confessor, whose status as a parish was ended earlier this year by the Diocese of Phoenix after a steady decline in participation, has been reopened as a second church in Mater Misericordiae Parish in Phoenix following an intensive six-month remodeling. Its new appearance is accompanied by new priests – members of The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) who also serve Mater Misericordiae just west of downtown Phoenix.

Auxiliary Bishop, the Most Rev. Eduardo A. Nevares, led a blessing of St. Edward before a nave filled to its 450-seat capacity on Saturday, Dec. 11. The Mass officially unveiled the extensive improvements on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Diocesean patron saint.

“May Our Lady of Guadalupe intercede for each of us and for all those who will worship the one true God here at this brand-new consecrated, blessed church of St. Edward the Confessor,” Bishop Nevares said at the conclusion of his homily.

Aux. Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares delivers the homily during the Solemn High Mass at St. Edward the Confessor Church in southeast Phoenix Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Jeff Grant/THE CATHOLIC SUN

“It was quite a day,” exclaimed Fr. Michael Passo, church pastor. “It is quite the joy to look at that altar.”

It was less than a year ago that St. Edward, named for the one-time king of England canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161, was a dying parish – its numbers dwindling and its future uncertain. After meetings in February and May, the Diocesean Presbyteral Council decided to suppress the parish, formally aligning it as a second church with Mater Misericordiae, and placing its members under the care of FSSP priests, who were invited to the Diocese by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in 2005.

Canonically erected by St. John Paul II in 1988, FSSP priests serve in apostolates across the world, “with the faithful celebration of the traditional Mass and Sacraments at the center of their charism,” states their website.

FSSP formally took possession of St. Edward in July 2021 according to Fr. Passo. Within days, work crews consisting largely of lay volunteers under the leadership of former Mater Misericordiae pastor, Fr. Joseph Terra, dove into the project.

“I hate spending money,” Fr. Passo said with a smile as he prepared to eat an outdoor meal following the Mass. “So, I asked, ‘Could we do this ourselves?’ In our parish, we have plumbers; we have tilers and woodworkers. I simply had to ask, and they came forward.”

Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares blesses the exterior of St. Edward the Confessor Church in southeast Phoenix Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Photo courtesy Ernesto Ibarra

After cleaning up the property and removing old furnishings, workers imported new pews from Holy Cross Parish in Mesa. “Those were different sizes, so we had to cut them down, remove the padding, clean them, reattach them, stain them, and reinstall them,” Fr. Passo explained. “It took Father Terra six weeks to build the three altars – the main one and two side altars. Up to five different parishioners were here every single night.”

One of the parishioners ‘marbleized’ the altars, making them appear to have a marble finish, part of the Venetian Baroque design style used throughout the sanctuary.

Of significance was the main altar stone.

“It is hard to find altar stones with documentation telling you what saints have been embedded in them,” he said. “When we acquired the property, we took possession of the old rectory. Father Terra did not want to waste time commuting from Laveen, where the order’s house is located, so he lived in the rectory while he built the altars. He was going through closets and found the altar stone with documentation wrapped in blankets. It is now embedded in the main altar.”

“It’s important to know who is embedded in the altar stone. The Diocese will document the saints embedded [there]. The saints are our patrons. We have a special intercessor in heaven. Having them documented is important so you can continue to call on their intercession and venerate them. Each time the priest ascends or kisses the altar, he is venerating those relics,” Fr. Passo explained.

The new look made an impression on Bishop Nevares.

“This is my first time here, [since] the church is remodeled, and I tell you, I can’t believe the change,” he smiled broadly. “It truly is a place of worship. It truly is a place of reverence. It truly is a place where people can gather as the family of God and offer the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. I was very moved and very inspired by the devotion, the love and service of the priests, and the response of the people. I think they are building a wonderful community that will continue to thrive for many years to come,” he said.

Parishioners were touched as well.

The congregation listens during the Solemn High Mass at St. Edward the Confessor Church in southeast Phoenix Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Jeff Grant/THE CATHOLIC SUN

“Super-excited,” said Madeline Brittan, with a twinkle in her eye. She, her husband, Anthony, and children, Zelie, 2, and Bo, 1, live in the neighborhood near St. Edward but have commuted for a year to Mater Misericordiae, so they could attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

“It is very packed over there. To have a Latin Mass parish this close is such a blessing; being able to walk to daily Mass, we’re very excited. We can’t believe it. Mater is a very popular church. Having to get there thirty minutes early with two small children is a challenge. Now, we can just skip right on over here and receive the Sacraments,” she said.

Luke Gurries, who moved to southeast Phoenix a few months ago, also had been traveling with his wife and 15-month-old daughter to Mater for the Latin Mass.

“This will be our new parish. We really like it so far,” he said. “It’s beautiful. You can see this is a growing, flourishing community. It’s awesome,” he said.

Franklin Villanueva, another parishioner, was at St. Edward for the demolition in July. This was his second time back.

“It’s beautiful. It really speaks to the beauty of the Catholic Church and the beauty of heaven. All the elements are natural. When we view the world in its natural beauty, it should point us to heaven. I am a big fan of the Venetian Baroque style – the architecture, including how the pillars are built into the altar. With the flowers, it is fitting for Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said.

St. Edward the Confessor and Mater Misericordiae, which means Mother of Mercy, are the only two churches in the Valley where the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated exclusively. A priest of the FSSP is also in residence and celebrating the Extraordinary Form at St. Cecilia Church in Clarkdale, in northern Yavapai County.

In addition, Bishop Olmsted has designated seven other parishes where the Traditional Latin Mass can be celebrated. The bishop acted in his authority as “moderator, promoter and guardian” of the liturgical life within the Diocese and regulator of liturgical celebrations in response to Pope Francis’ motu proprio, “Traditionis Custodes,” regarding use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reform of 1970.

The seven additional churches are: Ss Simon and Jude in Phoenix, St. Anne in Gilbert, St. Bernadette in Scottsdale, St. Catherine of Siena in Phoenix, St. John the Baptist in Laveen, St. Margaret Mary in Bullhead City, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Queen Creek.

Worshippers at the Latin Mass cite certain aspects that draw them there, including the liturgy and prayers sung in Latin by the priests and choir, as well as the additional use of incense throughout the Mass.

Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, places the host on the tongue of a worshipper during Holy Communion at St. Edward the Confessor Church in southeast Phoenix Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Fr. Federico Masutt, FSSP. holds the Communion-plate. Jeff Grant/THE CATHOLIC SUN

“I was a cradle Catholic, raised in the Novus Ordo (or New Order) Rite,” recalled Madeline Brittan. “I was introduced to the Latin Mass in the past couple of years. To me, it is a much more solemn, holy liturgy. The biggest thing is that the focus is more on the liturgy and less on me. It helps me focus on what’s important and connects me to the saints of old,” she said.

With 800 registered families at Mater Misericordiae Parish, including 1,300 who regularly attend Mass, Fr. Passo hopes for a more even distribution of worshippers among the two churches.

“It was a true blessing for us to have the opportunity to expand the community and provide the Latin Mass for those faithful in the Diocese of Phoenix who feel called or who love this Mass,” he said. “I am truly grateful to Bishop Olmsted and the Diocese for allowing that and for taking care of their flock. I am most grateful, too, for those who haven’t experienced the Latin Mass who come to see the Mass in its beauty and its splendor.

“We’re hoping to attract the neighborhood folks, especially those who were attached to this church; that they’ll come back. This is still their parish.”