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The Priests of St. Mary’s

A 1958 photo celebrating the 25th anniversary of Father Gilbert Zlater at St. Mary’s Church. The priests from left to right are: Father Victor Bucher, Father Lucius Grosso, Father Regis Rhoder, Father Gilbert Zlater, Father Evan Howard and Father Blaise Cronin.

A 1958 photo celebrating the 25th anniversary of Father Gilbert Zlater at St. Mary’s Church. The priests from left to right are: Father Victor Bucher, Father Lucius Grosso, Father Regis Rhoder, Father Gilbert Zlater, Father Evan Howard and Father Blaise Cronin.

This photo, taken in 1958, shows a number of prominent priests standing in the doorway of St. Mary’s Church rectory at Monroe and Third Streets. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Father Gilbert Zlater, the first St. Mary’s “boy” to become a priest and the first Franciscan from Arizona.

The six priests who officiated the mass were renowned figures in Maricopa County. They represented two generations of Franciscan priests who helped shape the county’s Catholic community.

Before Phoenix became a Catholic Diocese in 1971, it was part of the Diocese of Tucson. The Franciscans, who ran St. Mary’s parish after 1895, enjoyed considerable autonomy in Maricopa County due to their distance from Tucson and, because of that, were able to create dozens of missions and institutions.

Father Victor Bucher, the priest standing on the left, was the pastor of St. Mary’s from 1948 to 1964 and the master of ceremonies during the anniversary celebration. He erected the church’s rectory as well as the diocesan offices on Monroe (torn down in 2001) and many of the St. Francis Cemetery’s outbuildings and memorials. He also helped establish the Franciscan Renewal Center on Lincoln Drive.

Younger priests referred to Father Victor’s very German supervision of them as being “Bucherized.” One of his tests for new priests was to stand at the back of the church to hear how well their voices carried. Since the church had no electric sound system in the ‘50s, priests had to speak from a sounding board behind the pulpit. Father Victor also outraged parishioners in 1957 when he renovated the church’s interior without their consultation. The blue green paint repulsed a generation, until Father Warren Rousse restored the church in the 1980s.

Standing next to Father Victor is Father Lucius Grosso, a native of Phoenix, who grew up at 320 E. Monroe Street. His family’s home was bought from Father Lucius’s uncle, Dominick Donofrio, who made part of his substantial fortune from the manufacturing of cactus candy.

Father Lucius spent several years in San Francisco and a short time on a reservation before returning to the Valley as a priest in the mid 1940s.

Father Regis Rhoder, the third priest from the left, was the second native Phoenician to be ordained a Franciscan priest. Father Regis’s family was part of the German-American colony, which formed around the mainly German Franciscans. His family was also close friends with legendary pastor Father Novatus Benzing.

The man of honor in the photo was Father Gilbert Zlater (the priest standing in the center). He was Phoenix’s first ordained priest. Father Gilbert was born “Peter Gold” but change his last name to Zlater in 1949. “Gold” was the English equivalent of his immigrant family’s original name “Zlater.” As a child, he attended the original St. Mary’s Elementary School, which stood on Monroe Street.

Father Gilbert was a renowned preacher whose booming voice could easily be heard in the era of primitive sound systems. He was a pastor of two parishes in San Francisco, taught homiletics, and conducted retreats for Catholic military chaplains. He eventually specialized as a retreat master at California’s Serra Retreat in Malibu and St. Francis Retreat in San Juan Bautista.

In 1957, Father Evan Howard (the young priest with the open smile) was an associate pastor under Father Victor Bucher. Over the years, he did retreat work in Oregon, New Mexico, Canada, and California before returning to the Valley in 1994.

Since then, he maintained St. Mary’s informal relationships with its former institutions, St. Francis Cemetery and St. Mary’s High School, and continued the restoration policy of his predecessor, Father Warren.

On the far right is Father Blaise Cronin who arrived in Phoenix in 1944. In 1958, at the time the photo was taken, he was guardian of St. Mary’s Church. He later served as a teacher and chaplain at St. Mary’s High School and was considered the heart and soul of the school until his death in 1999.

Father Blaise helped hundreds of young people make the difficult transition to adulthood.

He was largely responsible for the scores of Saint Mary’s graduates who entered Phoenix’s Police and Fire Departments. He loved to visit his “boys” at their engine houses and bring them treats. Father Blaise also loved horse racing and was able to meet Bob and Dolores Hope at a track in Malibu where they became life-long friends. He remained intellectually brilliant at 80 and always had time to listen to people. At his death, many considered Father Blaise to be one of the best-loved men in Phoenix.

— Gary Weiand.  Photo courtesy of Tom Killeen.

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