PHOENIX — In the mid-1970s, when Phoenix was a much smaller city, the area near 7th Street and Dunlap Avenue west of the current Route 51 freeway was a mix of single-family houses and small businesses. 

Area Catholics attended Most Holy Trinity Parish and sent their children to its elementary school. 

English was the majority language, but by the mid 80’s, the demographic was shifting, and Spanish became the dominant dialect.  

Many area Latinos had limited means, and while the parish addressed spiritual and educational needs, a change was coming that would solidify parishioners’ sense of belonging and have a profound impact on their children’s education. 

It was July 2009, and the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), a Texas-based missionary community, began leading the school and parish. 

Saturday evening, the Diocese of Phoenix marked 15 years of SOLT’s work here, as well as the 70-year anniversary of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Elementary School. 

Bishop John P. Dolan came to the parish to celebrate the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass. It was also the eve of the Catholic Church’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity — the liturgical observance that falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost. 

SOLT also has served St. Frances Cabrini Parish in the rural town of Camp Verde, about an hour and half north of Phoenix since 2010. 

“It’s a great joy for me to join you and celebrate on this beautiful Solemnity of our Most Holy Trinity. Hopefully, (SOLT) will be here for another 15 years. We’re truly blessed to have them in the Diocese,” the bishop said.  


A small but international Catholic missionary gathering of priests, deacons, brothers, sisters, and laity, SOLT members live as an ecclesial family “in the Marian-Trinitarian spirituality.” Founded in 1958 by Fr. James Flanagan, SOLT’s mission is “to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus through Mary and bring all people into union with the Most Holy Trinity.” 

SOLT serves in eight countries, in areas considered impoverished.  

“Usually, we serve in an area of most need,” said Most Holy Trinity Parish Pastor, Fr. Al Abainza, SOLT. 

In addition to Fr. Abainza, two parochial vicars serve the parish – Frs. Lauro Bejo and Dennis Mary Dugan, SOLT, and four nuns – two at the school and two with the parish office. 

A total of 20 lay teachers and support personnel – aides, secretaries, and counselors — comprise the bulk of the school staff. 

Invited to the Diocese in 2008 by then-Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, SOLT was the third group of priests to serve Most Holy Trinity. 

Established in 1951 under the Diocese of Tucson, the parish was initially staffed by the Dominican Order, then Diocesan priests. The school was operated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN), an international order with a strong educational tradition.

Founded in 1804 in France and now based in Namur, Belgium, SNDdeN also serves people in poverty. 

“This has been a very positive outcome for the Diocese,” said Olmsted, now the Diocese’s bishop emeritus, a few days before Saturday’s celebration.  

“SOLT has worked with not just the parish but whole families, sharing together the witness of Christ. When I visited them, one of the things I picked up was the great joy and love with which they work. It is such a witness to their effectiveness.” 

A simple but faithful reliance on God, explained Fr. Abainza. 

“The LORD is with us at all times, and we are aware of that. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we become filled. The inspiration to serve comes from knowing the LORD completes the work (through) us.” 

That work reflects SOLT’s founder. 

A Boston-born, University of Notre Dame graduate and former Navy diver, Fr. Flanagan felt God’s calling to minister to the less fortunate in areas such as New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. Fr. John McHugh later joined him. Guided by the Gospel of St. Matthew, (28:19-20) — which records the risen Christ just before his Ascension telling his Apostles, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

“We are working hard to strengthen this area,” Fr. Abainza said. “(But while) ‘the harvest is plenty; the workers are few.’ (St. Matt. 9:37) We are working for more members, so we have hands and feet to serve.” 


Sisters with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) currently serving at Most Holy Trinity Parsh in Phoenix listen during the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass at Most Holy Trinity Church Saturday, May 25. Sr. Maria Giovanni Paolo dell’Eucaristia, SOLT, is the fourth from the foregound. Photo by JEFF GRANT/THE CATHOLIC SUN

Parishioners smiled when asked about SOLT’s presence.

Several said the priests and sisters bring a warmth and humility that conveys unconditional love. 

“The atmosphere (here) is old-fashioned; not elaborate; it’s just full of Jesus,” smiled LaVonne Simis, a 14-year parishioner. 

“The priests are very accessible and positive; they are warm, and their servanthood is evident,” said longtime parishioner Edgar Galindo. 

“They make you feel at home; welcome. The community really responds to them,” he said. 

Sr. Maria Giovanni Paolo dell’Eucaristia, SOLT, who manages the parish bookstore and gift shop, said she’s been blessed through parishioners.

“The love they pour out; it’s so humbling. It’s like a family (here),” she said. 

“We don’t look at anyone on the outside. We love them for who they are because we are all made in the image and likeness of God. 

A total of 3,500 families are registered with the parish, and school enrollment was 211 at the start of the just-concluded academic year. 

Gretchen Hansen and Shannon Weissinger met as classmates at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Elementary School around 1980.  

“We bonded just like that,” recalled Hansen, whose last name was Stahl before she married. 

The pair graduated in 1982. 

“It was really hard to leave this school and go to a public school,” recalled Weissinger, whose last name was Hughes. Adjusting to new classmates, most of whom had known one another in public grade school, was a challenge. 

“I had a rough time,” she said. 

But perhaps what the pair missed most after leaving Most Holy Trinity was the sisters of Notre Dame and the faith-based foundation to their education. Never overbearing, the nuns were diligent and perceptive as they led students through lessons, and seemed to know exactly when a youngster was in danger of falling behind. 

“It gave me a sense of confidence. I felt grounded,” said Hansen. 

“They were really nurturing. They really cared,” said Weissinger. 

“I don’t think I would be who I am today if I hadn’t experienced Most Holy Trinity when I was a child.” 


The school’s greatest impact may be on families of little means. 

Three of Oljaherna Hernandez’s children have graduated, and a fourth will enter 6th grade in August.  

A single mother who supports her family through housecleaning, Hernandez was able to send her children to a parochial, tuition-supported entity with an Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) and the AAA Scholarship Foundation, one of Arizona’s private School Tuition Organizations (STO). 

Funded by state taxpayers and administered by the state Dept. of Education, ESA channels support from a student’s local public school to the school of the family’s choice — public, private, charter or even home schooling — if that education includes reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science. 

AAA and other STOs allow private businesses and individuals to donate part of their taxable income to help educate youngsters in poor or underserved areas.  

Most Holy Trinity made a difference in Hernandez’s children’s lives. 

“Everyone here is helpful. I receive a lot of help. They really make sure you learn. And I’m glad I found (this) church,” she said. 

“They (the SOLT sisters) do a wonderful job of treating respect of religion and for the Bible.

“All the things we maybe didn’t get to learn when we were little — the parts of the Mass, the colors, Lent, Advent,” she said. 

“It isn’t a school with all the bells and whistles like we have around us,” said Principal Margaret MacCleary. “We don’t have an indoor gym or some of those things, but we have spirit. We want to teach all the right stuff they need to know,” she said. 

Bishop John P. Dolan greets a young worshipper after the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass at Most Holy Trinity Church in Phoenix Saturday, May 25. Photo by JEFF GRANT/THE CATHOLIC SUN

“You need to have the love and faith and guidance for our children to let them know they are valued. Sometimes, kids don’t get that. They don’t even get it at home — sometimes with all the hustle and bustle today and tech items, and TV. Teaching right from wrong, good from bad, helping them make the correct decisions in life (that’s what we try to do),” she explained. 

Hernandez’ three graduates include one in high school at St. Mary’s in Phoenix, another studying for priesthood at the Diocese’s college-level seminary, Nazareth House, and a third, who is Most Holy Trinity’s secretary. Next year, she will become a teacher’s aide. 

“If they didn’t have an opportunity to come to this school, it (would have been) hard, not being able to know our faith and about God. It is important because that’s how we know God is with us and He guides us in this world.”


The school’s fruit is growing elsewhere. 

Fr. Estevan Wetzel, a graduate, is now parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Avondale and training to become chaplain for the Army National Guard in Arizona.  

Another graduate, Fr. Dan Connealy, is pastor of San Francisco de Asis Parish in Flagstaff. 

In his Homily, Bishop Dolan encouraged worshippers to work alongside their priests and sisters to share and grow God’s Kingdom. 

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity is a time not just to celebrate God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but the “dynamic exchange” that takes place between God and man when He came to Earth in human form through His Son, Jesus, conceived through the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. 

“In this beautiful exchange between God and humanity, that we get to be caught up in…Mary was able to be woven in because she gave to us the Word of God.” 

Catholics participate in “that most perfect Communion” through the Eucharist, but they are also invited to “share” the Trinity with others, Bishop Dolan said. 

“We’re called to go out, as Jesus said in today’s Gospel, referencing the same Scripture that guides SOLT: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  

“What a gift that has been laid before us. But also, what an obligation,” said the bishop. 

“Think of your friends, your loved ones, who have not entered a church in a while. Think of your friends and your loved ones who have not had a conversation with God, let alone about Him. When was the last time you had an opportunity to pray with them? We just celebrated Lent. We just celebrated Easter – the most magnificent gift laid before us. And what are we going to do with that?” 

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