By BERN ZOVISTOSKI
The New Vision
The nine churches in the Cochise Vicariate in mostly rural southeast Arizona have a rich and intertwined history, particularly in Benson, Bisbee and Tombstone.
In Tombstone, one of the richest silver strikes in U.S. history occurred in 1877, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish was founded soon thereafter, on Dec. 31, 1880, when the town’s population grew to 6,000. It was the first church of any denomination in the fabled town later described as “too tough to die.”
Sent to Tombstone by Father John Baptist Salpointe, Vicar Apostolic of Arizona, in 1879 to ascertain the need for a church, Father Antonio Jouvencaeu encountered Nellie Cashman, who spearheaded the mining camp’s fundraising efforts for a building. Cashman, an Irish immigrant who led a storied life, also borrowed a team of horses and a wagon to haul wood from the Chiricahua Mountains.
Today the complex of three structures erected over the years at Sacred Heart, as well as a notable Rose Tree Garden, is recorded in the National Register of Historic Places.
In Benson, part of the San Pedro Valley traveled by Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino in the late 1600s, there was, as late as 1889, only a little Methodist church, where Catholics attended Mass four times a year on weekdays, led by Father Henry R. Granjon, a pastor in Tombstone who became the second bishop of the Diocese of Tucson.
An adobe structure was built in Benson in 1895 with money collected from parishioners and an interest-free loan from Copper Queen Co. Prior to that, Mass was held at the boarding house owned by Leopoldina “Mary” Kempf four times a year. Father Felix Emile Joseph Dilley was the first pastor and the church, named Our Lady of Lourdes, which served Catholics in Benson, Bisbee, Willcox, Fort Huachuca and Fort Grant in nearby Graham County.
In 1930 Father J.B. Dube was pastor when, as he gathered the history of the parish, he spoke with William Ohnesorgen, then in his 80s. Ohnesorgen said he came to Benson in 1868 as a government agent to supply hay and grain to cavalry troops at Fort Bowie, who were scouting “Apache Indians on the warpath who were killing all they could.”
For many years Benson was a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Tombstone, but as time passed, the silver mines in Tombstone closed down and the railroad brought life to Benson, and the roles were reversed: Our Lady of Lourdes became the parish and Sacred Heart the mission.
A larger church was built in Benson under the leadership of Father Thomas Doyle, and it was dedicated as Our Lady of Lourdes on May 22, 1949, by Bishop Daniel J. Gercke.
Our Lady of Lourdes’ original building could seat about 80 worshippers on 12 pews when completed. There were 20 pastors serving Benson in the first 50 years.
After the old church was torn down in 1972, nothing was left in the spot but vacant ground so in early 1973 Msgr. Rosettie and Abe Samuels came up with a plan for a grotto to be located in the area. Construction began in February. All the work was done by hand with the rock being hauled from a quarry in Dragoon and from the Whetstone mountains. The shrine was completed March 13, 1976 and it was dedicated the following day.
Notably, the churches built in Benson, Willcox and Tombstone are all of the same design.
Meanwhile, in Bisbee, a small frame church was constructed in 1892 and was called Sacred Heart Mission, but after completion the church was called St. Patrick’s. The church served both Mexican-Americans and the Anglo, mainly Irish, community.
Construction of the stately St. Patrick Church that stands today began on Labor Day 1915, when about 50 male parishioners began excavating with picks and shovels for four hours a day after laboring at their mining jobs. This went on for about six months, with Caucasians and Mexicans working side by side. When St. Patrick opened, the English-speakers attended that church and the Spanish-speakers returned to Sacred Heart. The churches merged in 1967.
St. Patrick is modeled after St. Begh’s Catholic Church in Whitehaven, an Irish district in England, and its German lead-stained glass windows are among considered among the most beautiful in the nation. Father Constant C. Mandin, a native of France, planned the church and served as its first pastor, from 1917 to 1938. St. Patrick is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1907, Loretto Academy was opened next to St. Patrick and 40 girls were boarded there and attended classes. In 1917, St. Patrick’s School was opened under the tutelage of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Since 1924, Loretto School in Douglas near St. Luke Parish has been operating, with students coming from nearby parishes and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. That school was made possible by Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Brophy, in memory of their daughter, Ellenita. The Sisters of Loretto were withdrawn in 1947 because of urgent demand elsewhere, and the Adrian Dominican Sisters assumed responsibility for the school.
Douglas has two parishes, Immaculate Conception, established in 1907 by Father Julius Gheldof, its first pastor, and St. Luke, which began as a mission of Immaculate Conception and was known as Our Lady’s Chapel before becoming St. Luke parish in 1950.
St. Jude Thaddeus Parish in Pearce-Sunsites stems from the late 1880s when Pearce was a gold mining town named after John Pearce, who discovered a rich deposit in 1894. A housing development called Sunsites was built in the 1960s, thus forming the place’s current name.
The original church in Pearce, built in 1893, was called Our Lady of Victory. St. Jude evolved on a five-acre site on Highway 191 donated to the Diocese of Tucson in 1966. The parish operates St. Francis of Assisi Mission in nearby Elfrida.
In Pirtleville, Catholics were served from 1907 as a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish in Douglas until, in 1956, St. Bernard Parish was erected. The founding pastor was Father Gaspar Parente. St. Bernard’s has two missions, Our Lady of LaSalette in Pirtleville and Sacred Heart Chapel in Douglas.
In Sierra Vista, St. Andrew the Apostle began serving the community in 1958. In 1991, a second parish, Our Lady of the Mountains, was established.
The Sierra Vista (Fry) area was served by Catholic chaplains from Fort Huachuca until Fathers Normal Whelan (Tombstone) and John Cullinan (Benson) surveyed the area and began forming the community which became St Andrew the Apostle.
Father Charles B. Towner was the first pastor.
In 2006, St. Andrew’s dedicated a new $5 million church complex. St. Andrew’s also operates Good Shepherd Mission in Whetstone.
Bishop Manuel D. Moreno approved the establishment of Our Lady of the Mountains Parish to meet the needs of the growing Sierra Vista region. The dedication occurred on July 16, 1991.
A unique feature of the Cochise Vicariate is located in Hereford, south of Sierra Vista, where Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine is the destination of many pilgrims, especially from nearby Mexico. The shrine has a 75-foot Celtic cross and a 31-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her hand extended to beckon visitors, and a small chapel.
The site was ravaged by fire in June 2011, causing significant damage, but restoration has been made and the shrine is open again to visitors, free of charge.