“Bittersweet.” That was the overwhelming consensus to describe the celebration of the Franciscan Friars’ legacy as they said goodbye to the people they’ve pastored at St. Mary’s Basilica for 127 years. 

“So, we bring you, Bishop John, a church to present back to you,” said the Very Rev. Michael Weldon, OFM, the outgoing rector of the basilica, addressing Bishop John P. Dolan in his homily during a liturgy June 24. “One that was offered to us 127 years ago. One that is an incredibly beautiful piece of architecture and a community that’s active, involved, loud, engaged in just about everything, still stirring up ideas and moving about the Phoenix area with that incredible identity of St. Mary’s Basilica.” 

The Saturday Mass — marking the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist, patron of the City of Phoenix and the anniversary of the day the church was dedicated in 1881 — drew a standing-room-only crowd that required some visitors to park several blocks away to say goodbye to the Friars. 

“I rearranged my schedule this summer so I could be here to experience the historic departure of the Friars,” said Theresa Kossler, who helps in the basilica’s office once a week. “The reason we joined the parish in the first place was the spirit of the Franciscan parish in prioritizing and serving the poor and marginalized. It just felt home the first time we came to Mass here.” 

Kossler is president of basilica’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, the oldest in the diocese. Out of that conference came the current Diocese of Phoenix Council, which is the largest in the world. 

In his homily, Father Michael recounted several milestones in the parish’s history, a result of collaboration between the Friars, the sisters who’d served at the parochial school at one point and the countless laypeople, highlighting initiatives like St. Vincent de Paul, St. Mary’s Food Bank — the world’s first — and St. Mary’s Catholic High School. 

“Put those things together and that’s good church. There are sins along with it, and brokenness, weakness, and egos and ambitions,” said the rector. “But there’s also great heroism and hope and vision and a kind of church that others wanted to be a part of.” 

Jeanne Olson, who now attends Most Holy Trinity Parish, remembers playing on the playground where now stands a patch of grass in the plaza adjacent to the basilica while a student at St. Mary’s. At the time the parish sponsored an elementary and high school, and she attended both for 12 years, graduating in 1959. 

“We loved the Franciscans. They were all our Fathers. They were just the most wonderful people ever,” recalled Olson. “We get together and we can tell stories about Father Barnabas and Father Salvador and Father Joel and on and on — funny, funny stories. They loved us, and they hated everything we did. We were ornery.” 

Even though she hasn’t been a regular parishioner since adulthood, she still brought her mother to Christmas Mass every year until she passed away earlier this year. Attending the liturgy brought back many memories for her. 

“There was a certain day of the year you had to go up and down the steps inside the church, and every time you did that you got a soul out of purgatory,” she said. “We did more of running up and down on those steps to get a soul out of purgatory. Our kids don’t know stories like that.” 

Parishioner James Wermers, who serves as a volunteer catechist and — with his daughter Emeliah — runs the parish’s livestream, describes the what the Franciscans meant to his family as “home.” 

“The Friars become friends, they become family. But I’m also excited to see what the Spirit has in store,” said Wermers. 

His two children received their sacraments at the basilica, along with his wife, Molly, who had grown up Lutheran and entered the Catholic Church this year. 

“She was confirmed this year and largely credits the Franciscans with being what made that difference in her life,” he said. “When we were going through our pre-marriage prep, it was ‘the family that prays together, stays together.’ This gave us a place where we could all be part of that.” 

Another former Lutheran, Heriberto Prudencio, returned to the Catholic Church at St. Mary’s Basilica with his wife in 2019. A former Lutheran pastor, he professed as a Secular Franciscan on June 10 of this year. 

“The Franciscans have done a great work, working as St. Francis taught them, serving the poor and needy,” said Prudencio, who grew up attending a Franciscan parish in his home country of El Salvador. “We’re going to really miss the Friars here at the basilica, but we pray that these new stages in this new chapter of their lives is a blessing wherever they go.”  

Tua Tuipulotu, one of the coordinators for the Phoenix Tongan Catholic Community at St. Mary’s, emceed a portion of the post-liturgy celebration in the church’s basement. He and his family have attended the basilica since being invited by then rector Father Vince Mesi in 2010. The Friars’ care for the poor, says Tuipulotu, has influenced the Tongan community’s own outreach. 

“It’s reminding us of how much we are to serve the needy. It’s something that we like to volunteer to be part of this community, whether we help in the St. Mary’s community or with any function in the parish,” he said. 

Laurie Phillips, who has been a parishioner for 13 years, remembers the Friars helping her keep her faith when she was fighting cancer while pregnant with her now 9-year-old son. 

“I have always enjoyed the Franciscan way of life. I feel like they bring a lot of love and guidance and encouragement to the community,” she said. 

Taking over as the new rector of St. Mary’s is a daunting task, admits the Very Rev. John Muir, who also serves as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Phoenix. 

“It’s overwhelming in terms of the honor and the responsibility,” he said. “The Franciscans have taken such unbelievably good care of this community, so, I just want to keep it going.” 

Father Muir, who grew up in the diocese, remembers attending the basilica for special events as child. 

“My heart is just filled with gratitude for the Franciscans and for the whole community,” said Father Muir. “The Franciscans have such an unbelievable way of touching the heart and bringing Jesus to people in our humanity. I just can’t wait to keep extending that spirit.” 

In his homily, Father Michael recalled that when the church was dedicated in the 19th century, it was blessed with “Gregorian water” — a mixture of water, wine, ashes and salt. 

“It wasn’t pure. It wasn’t just holy water. It was a mixture of people’s lives and stories, of water and ash and wine and salt,” he said. “It behooves us as a church to remember it well, to remember it every time we go by [Father] Novatus’ nose out in the front and rub it to make it all shiny. To remember it when we tell our stories at our funerals and weddings that we do so well here. To remember it when we serve the poor, when we take ourselves out in the street to stand for what we think is right. 

“Franciscan Phoenix built an amazing Catholic culture and we’re so very proud of it. But we’re also now looking forward to the next chapter of it, when you will build again, when you will have initiatives again, when you have fights, you survive, again, when you pray hard and love each other with forgiveness, again. We leave behind an amazing legacy that we friars will be very proud of,” added the outgoing rector. “With all our foibles and sins, I think we can say with some conviction that we’ve been good heralds. The Kingdom of God has truly been at hand with us and in us.” 

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