Controversial Priest Resigns out of 'Fatigue'

By David Proffitt
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
November 13, 2000

Father Saul Madrid, the embattled pastor of two downtown Phoenix Catholic churches, resigned Sunday, citing "physical and mental fatigue" after more than a year of controversy.

Madrid, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church at 909 E.Washington St. and St. Anthony Catholic Church at 909 S. First Ave., said his resignation and six-month sabbatical are not connected to his much-criticized appearance in a sexually explicit movie.

More, he said, it's the stress of leading two churches that has exhausted him.

"I think that if I stay longer, I am risking my health," said Madrid, 44,whose sabbatical begins in January. "And I could not be the priest and father I want to be if I do that."

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix said in a prepared statement that he accepted Madrid's resignation and his request for the sabbatical.

O'Brien also alluded to the priest's decision to allow a film crew inside St. Anthony's without the diocese's permission, for which Madrid has requested forgiveness from the congregation.

"Like all of us, Fr. Madrid has made mistakes for which he has apologized. However, I believe he is a dedicated priest and remains committed to the church and service to people," O'Brien said in the statement.

A former Immaculate Heart pastor, George Highberger, will replace Madrid at both churches, O'Brien said. And Madrid said he will soon begin conversing with Highberger. "I ask that you welcome Father Highberger warmly," Madrid told the congregation.

Even before assuming the helm of Immaculate Heart a year ago, critics gathered more than 6,000 signatures protesting his appointment, saying one priest couldn't lead two churches.

A group called the Christian Faithful has since accused him of financialand sexual improprieties and a lack of respect for parishioners. It also has raised questions about an unsolved arson at St. Anthony's despite officials' saying that Madrid has never been a suspect.

Madrid said Sunday that "the real issues" were the two churches' unwillingness to share a priest.

"It's very sad to see how parishes come to think of themselves as independent countries," Madrid said after Mass Sunday evening at ImmaculateHeart.

Madrid stressed that he's not leaving the priesthood. He said he'll use thetime to rest and study, but already looks forward to returning to Phoenix.

"I love being a priest," he said. "I'm very happy being a priest."

After Mass, several dozen people crowded around Madrid waiting for a chance to say a few words to him. Dressed in his green vestments, Madrid shook handswith some and embraced others. He gave blessings to anyone who requested one.

"For us, he's been a good priest and is very spiritual," said a somber Aurelio Alba of Phoenix. "He knew the people of the church."

Bechara and Mariana Manzur of Glendale said they understood his decision.

"Maybe he is leaving to put an end to the situation," Bechara said. "He maywant to bring unity to the parish."

The diocese established Immaculate Heart in the 1920s as a refuge forMexican-American Catholics who wanted to worship in their traditional style and who previously had to attend Spanish-language Mass in the basement of downtown's St. Mary's Basilica.


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