According to a source quoting the Verde Copper News, Saint Cecilia’s Mission has been nestled into the low hills of Upper Clarkdale for 100 years, welcoming the faithful to celebrate Catholic Mass.
The property for the mission was leased by the Bishop of Tucson, Bishop Henry Granjon, in 1920. The Wm. Simpson Construction Company of Los Angeles, CA began construction shortly after.
The first Catholic church built in the Verde Valley was Jerome’s Holy Family. Next came St. Cecilia’s. Both were missions of the Tucson Diocese. These missions, as well as Cottonwood’s Immaculate Conception, were led by priests of the Claretian Order which was founded in Barcelona, Spain in 1849. They began their work in Mexico and the US in the early 1900s. A partial list of the Claretian missionaries is appended.
A partial list of priests serving St. Cecilia’s after the Claretians include:
Rev. John Atucha (1940-1950s)
Rev. John Driscoll (mid 1950s)
Rev. Phillip Rieser (1960s)
Rev. Anthony Schwartz (early 1970s)
Rev. Raymond Gillis (mid 1970s)
Rev. Michael Hurley (late 1970 through 2002)
Today, St. Cecilia’s Mission is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Phoenix led by Father Salgado . It is a mission of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church located on State Route 89A in Cottonwood, Arizona.
St. Cecilia’s beautiful building appears much the same as it did when first built. The addition of the Rectory was accomplished by Father Phillip Rieser in the mid-1950s. Father Rieser, known as “The Builder,” assisted in the construction of many of the Catholic churches in Yavapai County.
Another St. Cecilia’s priest, Reverend John Driscoll, assisted in the establishment and building of Sedona’s renowned Chapel of the Holy Cross.
Reverend Phillip Rieser served in the 1960’s. “Father Rieser had a St. Patrick’s Day carnival every year, “ says Barbara Andre. “It had bingo, a cake walk and one of those little fishing ponds for the kids. It probably wouldn’t draw people today, but it was a big deal back then! It brought in a lot of money.”
The missions were all self-supporting. No funds came from the Diocese. Each mission, including St. Cecilia’s had to bring in enough money to support the priest and all building expenses, such as heat and water.
Reverend Raymond Gillis who served in the early 1970s, is remembered as an austere man, very serious and given to such practices as denying himself food and sleeping on the floor. His replacement could not have been more of a contrast.
In July of 1977, Reverend Michael Hurley was appointed to lead St. Cecelia’s. Known as Father Mike, his memory evokes joy from all who relate stories about him. Hailing from Chicago, he enjoyed a drink, a smoke and a good laugh.
“The best thing about Father Mike: short sermons!” according to parishioner Ruth Wicks.
“Father Mike was kicked out of a nursing home for smoking while he was on oxygen,” recalls Barbara Andre. “He’d give it up for Lent then go right back to smoking.”
Ms. Wicks said that around 1985, the Mingus graduation ceremony was threatened by heavy spring rain. Mingus Superintendent Ron Barber reportedly handed a $10 bill to Maintenance Supervisor Lupe Uribe, a member of St. Cecilia’s, and told him to get Father Mike to use his influence to control the wet weather. The graduation was mercifully dry, but the skies opened up right after the ceremony.
“He was a very kind man,” says Ms. Wicks.
Father Mike’s retirement in July of 2002 precipitated the closure of Saint Cecilia’s. Clarkdale’s dwindling population, the lack of available priests and the construction of Cottonwood’s new Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception were all factors in the decision.
According to longtime organist, Roberta Westcott, Saint Cecilia’s again began celebrating mass regularly about 15 years ago. The current priest, Reverend Salgado, rolled up his sleeves and evicted the population of rodents that had commandeered the building. “He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it,“ said Ms. Westcott.
Today, St. Cecilia’s Mission still welcomes the faithful to a traditional Latin Mass celebrated every Sunday by Father Salgado. Daily Mass and confession are available.
Photo by Bill Jones of Clarkdale circa 1979