Did You Know: St. Mary's Basilica Is The Oldest Catholic Church In Phoenix

November 15, 2013

(Photo courtesy of St. Mary's Basilica)
St. Mary's Basilica today.

Surrounded by modern-day hotels, convention and art centers,  the relatively small building dates back 100 years. It is one of the oldest religious structures in Phoenix. Although it looks out of place, the church is considered to be an important fixture of the city.

You have probably glanced at it while walking through downtown Phoenix on your way to a hotel or the Convention Center. The Spanish style bell towers and dual staircases highlights the main entrance. Did You Know that St. Mary’s Basilica has been designated one of the most important Roman Catholic Churches in the U.S.?

“We have been here since 1881, and the present church as you see it was dedicated on February the 15th, 1915,” said Jerome Doris, the parish manager.

Doris said the church has been on 3rd Street and Monroe since the 19th century, but it has gone through several phases on this street corner. When first established in 1881, it was a small church made of adobe. In 1903, it was rebuilt as a basement church to help cope with the summer heat. By 1913 a new, larger and more modern structure was constructed on top that basement. It is the Spanish Colonial style parish we see today.  

“We’re celebrating its centennial, and we’re kicking off its centennial this coming December the ninth which is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception who’s our patroness,” Doris added.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II elevated St. Mary’s to a minor basilica, making it the only one in Arizona and one of 32 in the country. 

“The term basilica is still indicative of churches that are of historical, liturgical and architectural importance, but it is the Pope’s church. This is the Pope’s church here in Phoenix," Doris explained.

The altar, Roman architectural dome ceiling and German style stained glass windows are among its unique features. As a matter of fact, St. Mary’s has the largest stained glass window collection in the state.

There is another interesting aspect about this church, its bells. They still ring. There are three of them of various sizes. They have been part of the church since the 1930s. They sat silent for many decades until 2006, when the church had them repaired.

Doris took me on a climb to the tower to see the 80-year-old bells, and the higher we went the narrower and steeper the climb.

“I am climbing awfully slow,” I told him.

“If you need a hand let me know,” Doris told me.

“Am I doing this right?”I asked.

“Yep,” Doris replied. “Pull up and you should be okay.”   

It is impressive to see the largest bell so close. It weighs nearly 2,000 pounds. Today instead of pulling a rope, the bells of St. Mary’s are set to ring on a timer.