Town’s church has sad, happy story

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By Vicki Clark

How the St. Helen’s Catholic Church building, once located in the now defunct town of Sonora, Arizona, became Infant Jesus of Prague Catholic Church in Kearny is an unique story. A story both sad and happy.

Sad because parishioners had to give up their Parish, but happy because the Church building found a new home and the building still exists today.

Early History, St. Helen’s

Sonora and sister towns of Barcelona and Ray came into existence because of mining operations and were also doomed by the same operations. In 1948 Kennecott Copper Corporation, which owned the mine at the time, began open pit operation at its Ray Mines Division. And by 1955 all underground mining was phased out.

Most of the very first St. Helen’s church building was destroyed by fire in 1932, only the walls and some statuary were saved. Fr. Angel Esteve, who first started ministering to the Parish in 1930, had the church building reconstructed immediately. But later, that building would also be destroyed, this time by the ever-encroaching open pit. The site of the second St. Helen’s would soon be gobbled up and that came in 1951.

But before that, in 1949, Fr. Angel was instrumental in the building of a magnificent hall at the cost of $12,000 where he held Mass and ministered to the people of the Parish. In 1953, the new St. Helen’s and a parish house were completed. Both were comfortable and modern. Blessing of the new facilities took place Dec. 6, 1953.

By the end of 1965 all residential areas had to be evacuated. The death knell had sounded and Sonora was to be no more. Both the church building and the rectory would later be moved to Kearny, but the hall could not be moved and had to be destroyed.

Early History, Infant Jesus

During the last years of the 50s, the town of Kearny started forming between Sonora and Hayden. In 1961, Fr. Angel, along with Fr. Elias Keller, OCD, who at the time was working with the St. Joseph’s Parish in Hayden, visited Francis J. Green, Bishop of the Diocese of Tucson. They wanted to talk about the spiritual needs of St. Helen’s Parish.

At the end of the meeting, the Bishop appointed Fr. Keller as active Pastor of what was to become the Infant Jesus of Prague Parish and Fr. Keller moved into his first rectory, a Kearny home located on the 300 block of Essex. The next day he said his first Mass in the living room of the rectory and with that celebration, the Catholic Church of Kearny began.

On May 4, 1961, the Catholic Women’s Guild was organized. Officers elected included Mrs. J. Jameson, president; Mrs. D. Simpson, vice-president; Mrs. A. Quinlan, secretary and D. Skufca, treasurer. The Guild started raising funds to pay for the rectory. During the spring of 1962, five acres of land were purchased. This property was located on Hartford and Upton Road.

In May of 1962, Bishop Green gave Fr. Keller permission to see an architect and soon afterward the Bishop visited Kearny to personally see the town and the site of where the new Parish, Infant Jesus of Prague, would be located.

A building committee was then formed. Serving on the committee were Dr. and Mrs. L. Linsley, Chairmen; Mr. and Mrs. J. Wise; Mr. and Mrs. E. Alvidrez; Mr. and Mrs. D. Archuleta; Mr. and Mrs. H. Bejar; Mr. and Mrs. G. Lavelle; and Mr. and Mrs. C. Schreiner.

The hired architect, Arthur B. Darton of Tucson, came to Kearny in July to see the ground on which the Parish was to be built. At this time the proposed site of the church was still at Hartford and Upton Road. Later the John W. Galbreath Development Corporation would deed the Parish different lots of land located on Victoria Circle and they came to be the site of the now existing Parish. The other property was subsequently sold.

In October of 1962 the Bishop’s building committee approved plans for a Parish Hall that would be used as a Multi-Purpose building. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on March 10, 1963.

The blessing and dedication of the temporary Church-Hall was held March 14, 1964 with His Excellency Bishop Francis J. Green, D.D. officiating. Various clergy, the Knights of Columbus and parishioners participated in the ceremony. Rev. Joseph Gillespie preached the sermon and Herman Bejar prepared an eight inch long tube for dedication documents which became a part of the cornerstone of the building.

The blessing and dedication of the temporary church-hall was held in 1964 and it was in February of 1966 when the Infant Jesus of Prague Parish was officially designated as the principal church for St. Helen’s Parish.

The Move

The St. Helen’s Church building was to become the permanent church in Kearny. And it had to come on wheels from Sonora, 11 miles away.Intermittent rains hampered the operation of hauling the church building and those that remember still shudder when recalling the load coming up the hill out of Sonora and going down the hill on Upton Drive in Kearny.

The Church was loaded low as it left Sonora to avoid as many overhead wires as possible. The big truck pulling the load was moving well as it approached the junction of Sonora Road and Highway 177 when a Palo Verde tree on the shoulder forced the driver to veer slightly. The right wheels under the building left the road and rode on the shoulder, lowering the church enough so that it couldn’t clear the guardrails. Helpers placed cribs under the wheels to hold the load in place. But with forward momentum gone, the church eased back, jumped the cribs, raised the truck up off its front wheels and sprung the huge steel beams supporting the front and back walls. Nothing was quite the same after that.

The wheels were once again cribbed saving the church from a downhill roll that could have ended in disaster. Two additional trucks were hitched to the church to get it past the guardrails.

It was slow-going from there. Riding low in back because of the bent beams, the church was unable to clear any but the lowest guardrails between Sonora and Kearny. The crew had to re-crib a number of times to lift the load.The journey lasted three days with Fr. Keller walking the whole way with his Rosary in hand. Fr. Angel, St. Helen’s Pastor for 34 years, was not present for the move, although he did return to Infant Jesus offering his help in various capacities over the next several years.

When the church arrived in Kearny, the moving crew was concerned about going down Upton Drive, an event that could have been as exciting as coming up from Sonora. Two trucks were hooked to the rear of the church building to act as brakes as the 94,000-pound load started its descent.

A power line within inches of the roofline of the church threatened as the load proceeded forward and seemed to offer another problem. An APS employee became very concerned and called out to “hold it.” But by that time there was no “holding it” and the church rolled right on by, missing the wire by an inch, giving or taking a hair.

The rectory showed up shortly thereafter and only took an hour and half to make the journey.

Progress

Fr. Ignacio Bach, OCD, arrived in Kearny on Sept. 11, 1966 and remained pastor until Oct. 28, 1973. Fr. Keller was transferred to a parish in Tucson. Under Fr. Bach’s leadership, the parishioners started improving the grounds around the buildings and there was plenty of work for everybody as the building and grounds needed repairs urgently.

The Church was dedicated anew by Bishop Green on June 11, 1967. A year later the church was re-roofed by a team of 15 people led by Bernard Zornacki and new carved mahogany doors were installed in the church, a gift from Dr. and Mrs. Lancelot Linsley.

In August of 1970, Mr. and Mrs. Pete Avelar provided for the use of the Parish a small building to celebrate Mass for the parishioners in the Riverside-Kelvin area. Bishop Green approved the mission and in October Fr. Bach celebrated the first Mass. It was used until about 1979.

Betty Wise and Virginia Schreiner offered their artistic abilities in November of 1972 to renovate a special altar for the Infant Jesus of Prague, Patron of the Parish.

Fr. Anastasio G. Font, OCD, became the third Pastor of the Parish in 1973. He served the Parish for nine years and during this time, all the existing debts were paid. A new rectory was built and the old rectory was converted into Catechism classrooms. When Fr. Font left, $9,000 was still owed for the new rectory construction. Fr. Gerald Winters became the next Pastor in October of 1982. He paid off the remainder of the Parish debt. On January 12, 1984, a Diocesan priest, Fr. Richard Costigan took over the Parish.

Other priests ministering to the Parish over the years according to Baptism records include Fr. Clarke Moore, Fr. Guy LeBlanc, Fr. David Speers, Fr. Kevin Clinch, Fr. G.J. Brynda, and Fr. Wm. Taft. Deacon Len Fuller’s name is also recorded during the 1980s. He offered his services at Baptisms, marriages, etc.

Following the illness and subsequent death of Fr. “Bill” Taft in 2004, Fr. James Aboyi, a Nigerian missionary, was appointed Associate Pastor. Fr. Dale Branson of St. Joseph’s in Hayden, was the official Pastor and oversaw the workings of the Parish until February of 2009 when Fr. James was appointed administrator.

Incorporation of the Parish to come in compliance with dictates from the Diocese of Tucson was instituted in 2005.

The year 2006 saw several changes for Infant Jesus including a re-instated Knights of Columbus organization in conjunction with St. Joseph’s Parish in Hayden. Also, a chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was formed, a group that raises money to help the disadvantaged with such things as utility bills, food and rent. The Church has embraced and contributed to this endeavor and many people in the Copper Basin community have been served.

A Parish Council was re-formed in 2006 with the intent of providing input into the workings of the Parish.

Also in 2006, a Parish Office setting was opened offering more access to Parishioners. The office is located in the building previously referred to as the “Old Rectory” which also houses the CCD classrooms. Such things as obtaining Sacrament certificates, booking Masses, Baptisms, etc. was made so much easier through the office.

In the year of 2007, the Parish Hall was dedicated to the memory of Fr. Taft and the “Old Rectory” was dedicated to the memory of Fr. Angel.

After Fr. James took over the reins several other changes were made. A finance committee was appointed and the Parish Council was expanded.

More community involvement, fundraising and a desire to have some old fashioned fun sparked La Fiesta del Santo Niño in 2009. The last three fiestas were very successful. A new pitched roof, added in 2009, changed the look of the parish hall and eliminated the constant repair to the old flat roof. The inside of the hall also got a make-over with the old carpet being replaced with tile.

Fr. James served five years in the Parish and was followed by Fr. Thomas Dekaa, also a Nigerian missionary. He began his duties in July of 2010. With the new priest came more changes.

The rectory was remodeled and Fr. Angel Hall also got a make-over dividing the office and the classrooms.

A full time paid secretary was hired and several changes to the various committee and councils also took place.

Infant Jesus of Prague is located at 501 Victoria Circle and the phone number is 520-363-7205. Masses are held Tuesday at 6 p.m., Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

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