If St. Mary’s Basilica can be called the “mother parish” of the Valley, then certainly the Franciscan Friars who have served there since the end of the 19th century can be called the Fathers of the Church in Phoenix.

Indeed, at least 15 parishes in the Valley can trace their roots to the Order of Friars Minor who are this summer withdrawing from the pastoral care of the basilica at which they have ministered since 1896 — 15 years after its dedication as the first Catholic church in the newly established territorial town of Phoenix. From the time of their arrival until the 1920s, the Franciscans were the only priests in the Valley, and, until the 1930s, there were no resident diocesan priests. Many of these communities themselves would grow the faith in their areas, leading to the establishment of more parishes.

‘Rebuild my Church’

“[St.] Francis’ conversion was an experience of Christ crucified, who told him to go and rebuild the church, which was falling into ruin,” said the Very Rev. Michael Weldon, OFM, who has served as rector of the basilica since 2014. “They came here with a church in ruins — there were bats flying through the holes in the roof, and the adobe was crumbling. That’s the foundational part of our legacy here: We’re church-builders. We were missionaries, and Franciscans are missionary at their core.”

When the Friars arrived, they undertook the project of building the current church. Led by then pastor Fr. Novatus Benzing, OFM, they built what’s known as the “Basement Church” first, before completing the upper church in 1915.

“There’s no doubt the basilica is one of a kind. It’s priceless in what it provides. It’s one of the most beautiful churches anywhere,” said local historian Frank Barrios, author of “Mexicans in Phoenix” and “The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Phoenix.”

In 1985, the church was elevated from parish to a minor basilica, making it one of the parishes of the Holy Father. Then-pastor Fr. Warren Rouse, OFM, became the first rector of the new basilica. This served as a prelude to St. John Paul II’s historic visit to Phoenix on Sept. 14, 1987, where he addressed the crowds of the city from the basilica’s balcony.

Franciscan Education

Fr. Weldon grew up as a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe and was actively discerning a vocation by entering the Tucson diocesan minor seminary in 1967 when he first encountered the Friars. Fr. Joel Scott, OFM, who was serving as principal of St. Mary’s High School, celebrated the Mass there while the resident priests were on vacation.

“I heard his sermon and his preaching style. I was immediately enamored by it and wanted to be a friar then for the rest of my life,” recalled the rector. “That combination of prayer and hands-on way of being with people and just a raucous [sense of humor] is what drew me in and still does.”

The future priest attended St. Mary’s High School before entering formation with the Franciscans, a path which saw him living at the Franciscan Renewal Center — or the “Casa” — with other candidates while attending Arizona State University before entering the novitiate and, eventually, the priesthood.

A parochial school was erected in 1892, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. After the Franciscans arrived, they took possession of the school and invited the Sisters of the Precious Blood to teach. The need for education continued beyond elementary age, and in 1917, the Friars opened St. Mary’s High School near the church. While the elementary school closed in 1994, the high school remains open at its present location just north of Downtown Phoenix.

At the high school, many of the Franciscans taught life skills classes such as woodshop, said the school’s alumni relations coordinator Patricia Hollerbach, who graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 2009.

“One of the stories I always hear is someone was in a car accident or on a deathbed, and the Friars heard about it, and they would go and give them words of wisdom,” said Hollerbach, a parishioner at the Casa’s Our Lady of the Angels Conventual Church, where the Friars will continue to serve. “It wasn’t even a student, but they heard about it.”

Social Outreach

From its earliest days, parishioners understood their social responsibility as, at one point, the only Catholic church in the city, and later as the “Downtown” church.

The first fraternity of the Order of Secular Franciscans was a Spanish-speaking fraternity named for St. Elizabeth of Thuringia. The current fraternity, named for St. Francis, was established in the 1920s as more English-speaking Catholics arrived in the Valley from the Midwest and other parts of the country.

“We have the spirituality of St. Francis we try to integrate. It’s what guides our service,” said Tom McNamara, OFS, the minister for the lay organization. “The seculars have been active in the Church doing the corporal works of mercy and living the Franciscan spirituality.”

As the Church grew in this part of the state, new fraternities were established from the original at St. Mary’s. Today, there are eight fraternities in the diocese.

“There’s so much that wouldn’t be here if the Friars had not been here. I’m thinking of the historical stories I’ve looked at in the past. They were a big influence in the Arizona experience,” reflected McNamara, who also attends Our Lady of the Angels. “But it’s never been just the Franciscans. It’s been the Franciscans working with communities in the spirit of the Gospel to make the world a place that’s fit for living. This is where the Franciscan drive for social justice comes from.”

One of those efforts began in 1946 with the establishment of the first Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, under the guidance of then-pastor Fr. Victor Bucher, OFM. Parishioners from St. Agnes and St. Francis Xavier soon joined in the efforts, and within three years, each parish had its own conference, and they formed a council to serve the county. When the Diocese of Phoenix was established in 1969, this became a diocesan council, and it is now the largest diocesan council of St. Vincent de Paul in the world.

“After World War II, Phoenix started growing at a huge rate, and you had poverty reaching the downtown area,” said Barrios, who also served as president of the diocesan council 2014-2017. “You had parishioners from other parishes coming in, working with St. Mary’s, and they would go anywhere in the city to help people as the need was there. They decided to primarily provide food [and] bought a restaurant and started feeding the poor.”

Two decades later, in 1967, parishioner John van Hengel saw a need and created St. Mary’s Food Bank, which would be the first food bank in the world. Then-pastor Fr. Ronald Colloty, OFM, helped provide the capital van Hengel needed to start the project.

“He started gleaning from the restaurants to bring food to people that were in the soup kitchens and then produce and stuff to bring people’s homes,” Fr. Weldon said of van Hengel.

Downtown church

As the city of Phoenix has evolved, so has the flock St. Mary’s Basilica is called to serve. While it has traditional parish boundaries, because of its location in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, it also serves people who work downtown or who come to visit.

“Our guests every Sunday are a huge part of the people we see only once or twice a year. With the renewal of the downtown of Phoenix, St. Mary’s is right in the middle of it,” Fr. Weldon said. “Fr. Novatus wanted it to be the cultural center of Phoenix, and it has become that.”

Being downtown also allows the basilica to continue serving the homeless population.

“The poor… those are our people. I hope that they’re always welcome. They’re parishioners,” he said.

“People know us as the place of welcome and hospitality,” said Br. Scott Slattum, OFM. “People like to share their stories with us. It’s like they almost need a place to be able to tell their story and to have their story heard and acknowledged, and then to help them reflect back on how God is at work in their life and how God is present — even though they might not see it — in the midst of their struggles.”

With the growth of colleges and universities into the downtown area, many parishioners are students, and in some ways, the basilica’s YouFra group acts as a de facto Newman Center for downtown students, Fr. Weldon said.

“We have 11,000 college students who live within a couple of blocks,” Fr. Weldon said. “The Church has got an opportunity here to reach into that community in a different kind of way.”

As a basilica, St. Mary’s has a coat of arms. Because of its Franciscan history, the shield includes the Seal of St. Francis. Fr. Weldon said he hopes that the parish maintains its Franciscan character.

“When I engaged it in 1967, it was just the most vibrant sense of the Church I had ever seen. I still think it is, and I got to see it here,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll see anything like it again. To be the last rector of ours here was not my dream, but it’s been an honor.”

End of an era

Because of diminished priestly vocations and a restructuring of their United States Provinces, the Franciscan Friars of the Santa Barbara Province will withdraw from pastoral leadership of St. Mary’s Basilica at the end of June. This decision was part of a long discernment process by the Franciscan community and will include changes in other assignments across their six U.S. provinces. The Franciscans Friars will maintain their Arizona presence at the Franciscan Renewal Center, also known as the Casa — Our Lady of the Angels Church in Paradise Valley, and the Old Mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson.

“On behalf of the faithful of the Diocese of Phoenix, I want to express our deep gratitude to the Franciscans for their dedication and commitment to this historical first parish in Phoenix,” said Bishop John P. Dolan.  “In the Franciscan spirit, they have ministered with generosity and compassion, playing a significant role in the growth and formation of the Catholic community over the past 127 years.”

The Order of Friars Minor will officially return pastoral care of the basilica to the diocese on July 1. Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, Fr. John Muir, will take the additional role of pastor at St. Mary’s Basilica. There will be a public celebration in honor of the Friars’ legacy on Saturday, June 24 at 10 a.m., the basilica’s anniversary and the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the City of Phoenix. All are welcome.

Tony Gutiérrez is a writer for Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante.

From what was then St. Mary’s Church, the Franciscan Friars ministered to communities that would eventually develop into the parishes of:

Major Milestones in St. Mary’s Basilica’s History

1870: First recorded Mass in the Valley celebrated at the home of Phoenix co-founder Jack Swilling, whose wife, Trinidad, was Catholic.

June 24, 1881: Bishop Jean-Baptiste Salpointe of the Vicariate Apostolic of Arizona dedicates the first St. Mary’s Church, an adobe church.

1892: St. Mary’s School opens, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy.

Jan. 7, 1896: The Franciscans of the Order of Friars Minor formally take possession of St. Mary’s Church at the invitation of Bishop Peter Bourgade of Tucson.

Oct. 12, 1897: St. Francis Cemetery becomes the first Catholic cemetery in the Valley, maintained by the Franciscans until 1969.

Feb. 11, 1903: Bishop Henri Granjon of Tucson dedicates the basement church under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Feb. 11, 1915: Bishop Granjon dedicates the upper church, which is in use today.

1917: St. Mary’s Catholic High School opens, staffed by the Friars and the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

April 26, 1946: The first Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference in the Valley is established in the old rectory, which would eventually develop into the largest SVdP diocesan council in the world.

December 1967: Pastor Fr. Ronald Colloty, OFM, and parishioner John van Hengel establish St. Mary’s Food Bank, the first food bank in the world.

Nov. 29, 1978: St. Mary’s is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sept. 2, 1985: St. John Paul II elevates the church to Minor Basilica.

Sept. 14, 1987: St. John Paul II visits Phoenix, prays inside of St. Mary’s Basilica and addresses the crowds from the balcony

Feb. 11, 2015: Very Rev. Michael Weldon, OFM, rector of the basilica, formally apologizes on behalf of the Friars for their treatment of Hispanic parishioners 100 years earlier and re-dedicates the doors as an act of reconciliation and reparation

September 2022: The Friars announce that they will be departing St. Mary’s Basilica on July 1, 2023.