Dedication of St. Mary’s

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//January 19, 2017

Dedication of St. Mary’s

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//January 19, 2017


In the photo above, Bishop Granjon of Tucson and most of his clergy plus a crowd of parishioners and politicians are gathered on the balcony under gray skies, probably following the dedication of St. Mary’s Church. To the west is St. Anthony’s elementary school, where the Sisters of the Precious Blood taught Spanish-speaking students; in 1917 the upper floor of St. Anthony’s became the first home of St. Mary’s High School. To the east (obscured in this photograph) was St. Mary’s Elementary School, where the sisters taught in English.

The dedication was an enormous public event. Politicians viewed it as a rite of passage for their three-year-old state. Governor George W.P. Hunt attended with his staff, as did Attorney General Wiley Jones, Phoenix Mayor George Young, assorted city commissioners and many lesser figures.

Despite pouring rain, a large crowd followed Bishop Granjon as he led a procession around the church and blessed it. The sanctuary held more than a thousand worshipers, and still the crowd spilled onto the balcony during mass.

The builder of the new church was Father Novatus Benzing, one of the pioneering Franciscans who first took charge of the tiny Phoenix parish in 1896. Father Novatus foresaw the growth of Phoenix and quickly moved to replace the small adobe church and rickety outbuildings he inherited with an edifice that could house a growing congregation and make an emphatic architectural statement.

He and Brother Leonard Darscheid quickly drew up plans, but it was 1902 before Father Novatus could raze the old church and replace it with the foundation and basement of the present St. Mary’s. That basement, under an improvised canvas roof, served the parish for a decade as it struggled to raise the $80,000 needed to complete the upstairs.

Work began on the sanctuary on July 7, 1913, and continued through December 31, of the following year. William Houdak directed the effort under the close supervision of Father Novatus, who at the last minute vetoed plans for gothic towers in favor of a mission revival exterior. The result, according to the Arizona Republican, was “one of the finest buildings in the Southwest.”

The interior was distinguished by oak pews and three wooden altars carved by Brother Eugene Obert. There were 31 stained glass windows, 13 depicting the life of St. Mary and the remainder an honor guard of saints and angels. Most were donated by parishioners. The windows were made by the Emil Frei Company of St. Louis to the exacting specifications of Father Novatus.

Over the years, St. Mary’s has remained a prominent downtown institution. Until the late 1920s, every Catholic church in the Valley began as a mission from St. Mary’s, which supplied priests and nuns for service on reservations, schools and hospitals throughout central Arizona.

Today, St. Mary’s is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an Arizona Historical Site. In 1985, it was designated America’s 32nd basilica, and on September 14, 1987, Pope John Paul II addressed a large crowd from the balcony.

— Photo courtesy St. Mary’s Basilica’ research by Gary Weiand.