St. Mary’s old adobe church – the first Catholic parish in Phoenix and in Maricopa County – stood on Monroe Street between Third and Fourth streets on the site of the present St. Mary’s Basilica, and marked the culmination of a sustained missionary effort in Arizona led almost exclusively by French priests. The man who built the church was Father Eduoard Gerard, one of the most prominent of the Frenchmen.
It is hard to believe now, but in the 19th century all of North America was considered missionary territory by Rome. In 1839, the bishop of Cincinnati, John Baptist Purcell, returned to his native France to recruit priests. Among the men he brought back was Jean Baptiste Lamy, who eventually became the first vicar apostolic of New Mexico, which then included territory all the way to Tucson.
The need for more missionaries became acute when new territories (present-day Arizona and New Mexico) came under American control following the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Father Lamy returned to France in 1859 and recruited Fr. John Baptiste Salpointe from Mont Ferrand Seminary, where he taught natural sciences. He arrived at Tucson in 1866 and was named Vicar Apostolic of Arizona two years later.
Because of the influence of Lamy and Salpointe, and the continued support of Mont Ferrand Seminary, the great majority of Arizona’s pioneer priests were French or Belgian, as were the first two bishops of Tucson, Peter Bourgade and Henry Granjon.
The Catholic Church was first centered in San Agustin Cathedral in Tucson. Most of the rest of Arizona Territory was mission territory, rarely so much as visited by a priest. Fr. Salpointe wished to remedy the situation, so in 1869 he too journeyed back to Mont Ferrand and recruited Subdeacon Andre Antoine Michael Echallier, whom he subsequently ordained as a priest in New Mexico.
Salpointe’s plan was to establish a real Catholic presence in the territory north of Tucson. In 1870, Fr. Echallier was made the first pastor of Assumption Parish in Florence. He promptly built a church and used his base in Florence to expand northward to Phoenix.
Phoenix had incorporated in 1870, just three years after Jack Swilling began dredging the canals that made the town’s fortune; the city’s population still was small and scattered.
Fr. Echallier held the first Catholic Mass in Jack and Trinidad Swilling’s home, an adobe structure at 36th St. and Washington.
In 1877, he was replaced by another French priest – Father Eduoard Gerard – who came to Tucson following graduation from seminary and was the first priest ordained in Arizona. Within a few months he was assigned to Assumption Parish in Florence.
The assignment, of course, entailed continuing the missionary work already begun in central Arizona. He oversaw the Catholics of Phoenix, Tempe and Globe.
Once every three months, he would ride across the desert to Phoenix to hold Mass in the home of Jesus Otero, which stood at the corner of Washington and First Avenue. It was three days by horse and wagon and Phoenix was growing rapidly, so in 1880, he began building a church.
St. Mary’s was dedicated the following year. It became the mother church of Maricopa County, with oversight as far as Wickenburg; until the late 1920s, all other Catholic churches in Phoenix began as missions of St. Mary’s.
The St. Mary’s adobe church cost about $5,000 and was welcomed enthusiastically by citizens who hoped that a school would soon follow. It was another decade before that would become a reality.
Within 20 years, the phenomenal growth of Phoenix had made the old adobe obsolete. It was torn down in 1902 to make way for the basement of the present Basilica.
Fr. Gerard went on to serve as rector of San Austin Cathedral in Tucson from 1885 to 1909, and became the vicar general (the bishop’s chief deputy) of the new Diocese of Tucson, which administered Phoenix until the early 1970s. In 1914, he became chaplain of Mercy Hospital in Prescott, where he served for more than 20 years.
Failing eyesight forced him to wear thick glasses, but he still was able to participate in St. Mary’s 50th anniversary in 1931. He became seriously ill in December 1936 and died on the 25th, fulfilling his wish that he might “be in heaven for Christmas.”
Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Basilica; research by Gary K. Weiand.
©Arizona Capitol Times