Queen of Peace Catholic Church is the mother church of the five other parishes in Mesa, and now a trio of lay members have painstakingly combed the community to amass materials that tell its story.
The church’s past is richly showcased in a new, small museum in the foyer of Madonna Hall on the Queen of Peace campus at 141 N. Macdonald.
There is the story of the first priest, Lucius Sietter, who rode horseback from Tempe on the last Sunday of each month to celebrate Mass in temporary places like the winery run by A.L. Cuber until it burned down. Masses moved to the home of Natividad and Francisco Aros, and to the Alhambra Hotel, managed by Daniel Mahoney until a brick church was erected 96 years ago.
Hundreds of photos of parish life, events, priests, nuns, teachers, students and leaders chronologically tell the story as visitors move around the foyer’s four walls. A glass case holds artifacts and keepsakes, including a portable altar and last rites kit. The face of Christ is seen in a figurehead stone once embedded in the exterior wall of Sacred Heart Church, from which Queen of Peace developed.
One corner of the Queen of Peace Sacred Heart Museum chronicles how it took a landmark Arizona Supreme Court decision in 1945 to force the city to allow construction of the church at its present site. At the time, the Tribune reported that the parish, with an aging brick church at Second Street and Country Club Drive, had purchased the land on Macdonald, only to be told that a 1939 zoning law restricted churches from single-family residential areas "on the grounds that they caused a public nuisance."
"The ordinance had been waived in the past for construction of several Protestant churches," but, as the newspaper reported, "homeowners feared a Catholic church and school would hurt their property values."
But Corrine Miller, assistant chairman of the museum committee, noted that the same ordinance permitted schools, libraries, playgrounds and parks in residential areas, and they produced far more disruption than churches.
Arizona Chief Justice R.C. Stanford, a former governor, ruled that Mesa’s ordinance was "arbitrary and unreasonable . . . unconstitutional and discriminatory."
Some of the money to build the church came through Bishop (later Cardinal) Richard Cushing of Boston from an anonymous donor, on the condition the name be changed from Sacred Heart to St. Mary’s. Chandler and Phoenix already had parishes with the name St. Mary’s. While the Mesa parish was named St. Mary’s Queen of Peace, it would be called Queen of Peace.
The museum’s chairman, Nadine Grace, is the granddaughter of Francisco and Natividad Aros, who were among Mesa’s first Catholics when they arrived in 1883. Sacred Heart would be a mission church until the Catholic Diocese of Tucson established it as a church Nov. 1, 1934. Today the parish has 3,200 families. Out of it came members who would form the nucleus to start Christ the King Parish in 1959, All Saints in 1972, St. Timothy’s and Holy Cross, both in 1978, and St. Bridget’s in 1985.
The museum was developed at the suggestion of the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Leonard Walker.
"We are the mother church of the city, and it has an interesting history," he said. "I think each community needs to have a sense of its roots."
The new museum sits in a Mesa historic district with several other museums nearby.
"I think it is important that we tell our story just as other groups tell their stories," he said.
"One of the interesting things is that this parish has gone through various transitions," Walker said. "I see it foremost as having roots in the immigrant community — its Hispanic presence here in Mesa." A key influence were Lebanese immigrants who have been active in the parish, most notably the family of the late auto dealer Tony Coury Sr., who championed and served as chairman of fundraisers for the Queen of Peace School.
The museum gets good marks from Anna Uremovich, archivist and head of the Mesa Room housed in the Mesa Public Library.
"Nadine came in to do some research about Sacred Heart Church, and we found some items for her," Uremovich said. "We got to talking and the next thing I knew, she was putting together this exhibit."
Helping foster a church museum, Uremovich said, serves the Mesa Room’s "commitment to stretch out into the community and have the community become aware of its own history." She encourages other congregations to explore compiling their histories and collecting treasures of their past.
The new museum was dedicated Jan. 7 with about 60 guests.
"We have been working on this for about a year and a half," Miller said. "It takes a long time because you have to find the pictures, then either have to have them enlarged or reduced so things would kind of fit." The cavalcade of photos used came in from parishioners after many appeals. The museum committee is still seeking parish treasures and keepsakes.
Miller and Grace joked about going to garage sales to find enough picture frames to accommodate the photos. Many of the pictures used were from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1984.
Some frames feature the Sodality Society, the annual Fiesta celebration, the Knights of Columbus and the many decades of bingo.
"What was so nice about bingo was that it was a very inexpensive way for people to come for entertainment," said Miller, who along with her husband, Greg, ran the bingo program for six years.
"The church dropped bingo several years ago because it was hard to compete with the casinos for their big payouts. We sold those bingo cards for a dollar a card, and when you had four cards, it was just $3. We had older women on Social Security come, their husbands frowned and they would buy one card. They would have an evening of entertainment for a dollar."
One year bingo generated $26,000 for the school.
The museum may be visited whenever Madonna Hall is open.
The archive exhibit "is nothing that is overwhelming," said Mike Evans, a former Gilbert town councilman and a teacher at Queen of Peace School. "It’s nice to stand around and look for family, friends and old neighbors and read the different stories."
Evans said Queen of Peace has been a longtime witness and force in Mesa.
"I believe it has lived the Catholic Church’s teachings and has long been effective in social justice in the Valley."