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Rifleys — Father and Son

William John Rifley is pictured with his son, William Frank Rifley, in the early 1920s.

William John Rifley is pictured with his son, William Frank Rifley, in the early 1920s.

This photo, showing father and son in boxing gloves, was taken in Phoenix about 1922. It reflects Jack Dempsey’s dynamic effect on American culture. A comparatively small man, Dempsey electrified the nation in 1919 by winning the heavyweight championship, knocking out the gigantic Jess Willard in just three roundsc — an event that launched America’s Golden Age of Sports.

Men aged more quickly in those days; the father in this photograph, William John Rifley, was only about 56 when it was taken, but looks older, more like a grandfather. His son, William Frank Rifley, was a mere youth and lived to see Phoenix grow from its small town origins into a metropolis.

William John Rifley, a German Roman Catholic from Germantown, Penn., arrived in Phoenix in 1890. He became a successful contractor, aided by his Irish-American wife, Mary Cummings, who was described by Judge Carter of California as a “very nice lady with a strong, stout presence.”

She was an excellent businesswoman who handled John’s real estate matters when he was out of town. Since she too was Catholic, the couple naturally gravitated to the only Catholic parish in town, St. Mary’s, which was then an adobe structure on Monroe Street between what were called Pima and Pinal streets (now Third and Fourth streets).

In 1896, the Orders of Friars Minor (Franciscans) took over the administration of the parish, and their leader, German immigrant Father Novatus Benzing, began plans to expand. In 1902, he began a two-phase project to build the current structure by abolishing the old adobe church.

Starting with the basement of today’s church, which he covered with a temporary roof in 1903, he projected plans for a truly impressive edifice. For a decade, he raised funds to complete the top stories.

Meanwhile, William John Rifley had homesteaded 500 acres in Sunnyslope (known until the 1940s for its tuberculosis retreats) and had become a leading contractor in Phoenix.

When Father Novatus began work on the upper church structure in 1913, his love of craftsmanship and thrift led him to seek William John’s assistance. Together they built one of early Phoenix’s most outstanding buildings.

William John made major contributions to the upper half of the church, which when completed on Dec. 31, 1914, and dedicated the following February, became a prize of Phoenix architecture. Many of his contributions to the interior are no longer known, but his grandson remembers some details, including the fact William John helped design the stairway leading to the bell tower.

More visible was William John’s donation of all the pews, which are still in use. (These were painted an ugly bluish-green in the 1950s, during an ill considered architectural “renovation” that also diminished the altars — an act little short of vandalism — but were restored in the 1980s.)

His grandson, Bill Rifley, reported that William John insisted on using fine materials — wood, for instance, from Germany and marble from Italy and arranged for craftsmen — stone cutters and wood carvers — to come from Europe. The rails, altars and seats are all hand cut or carved.

William John also built the old Masonic Lodge at 15th Avenue and Jefferson Street, which today is the Arizona Mining Museum, the old First National Bank building (since demolished) on the corner of Washington Street and First Avenue, as well as a number of homes which still stand today.

Future mega-builder Del Webb was only a washed up former baseball player when he moved to Phoenix in hopes of regaining his health. He began his career by working for Rifley as a carpenter.

William Frank, the boy throwing a punch to the jaw, was born in 1913. Sometime after his birth, his father built a row of apartments (with front porches — there still was no residential air conditioning) on Roosevelt Street between Third and Fourth avenues, and the family moved there sometime in the 1920s. William John began to work extensively as a builder in California, while his wife oversaw work in Phoenix. William John died unexpectedly in 1931.

His wife Mary remained a parishioner of St. Mary’s and stayed in the apartment on Roosevelt until her death in 1942.

William Frank sold the property after World War II and bought a ranch at 44th Street and Thomas Road, which he turned into what his son remembers as the biggest chicken ranch in Phoenix. There he began raising a third generation of Phoenicians.

— Gary Weiand. Photo courtesy Bill and Lola Rifley.

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