Nativity Sons

Not far from the three wise men, a man holding a sack of money stands on a high desert studded with rocks and yucca. Like everyone else in the scene, he's headed to see the Christ child.

"Recognize him?" asks Father Marcus Medrano. "That's Satan. To me, this is not unusual. Catholics believe that Jesus is the antagonist against Satan, so we put him there because he's usually somewhere in the neighborhood."

Including the corner of 28th and Larimer streets, where Medrano's parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, serves as both the heart and soul of the neighborhood. While the church is always concerned with the challenging realities just outside its door, during the Christmas season, its interior is turned over to an ever-expanding rural Mexican Nativity scene. In this year's incarnation, an elaborate canvas backdrop obscures the vaulted ceiling, while a chicken-wire set the size of the average bedroom completely covers the altar. When receiving communion, the faithful now contemplate a landscape of adobe buildings, bread ovens and two streams filled with water, hills dotted with donkeys and villagers, and a volcano about to erupt in the distance. On the far right, the main event -- a large and naked baby Jesus -- lies in the manger.

Father Medrano has spent all but fourteen of his Christmases at this church, and for many of them, sixteen decorated trees adorned the altar. They've now been pushed out by the Nativity, but Medrano has no problem with the change.

"You can influence me," he says. "You can even argue with me."

Javier Ramos began arguing with Father Medrano almost as soon as he arrived at Sacred Heart, searching for a Spanish-language Mass. A seminarian from Aguas Calientes, Mexico, Ramos gave up the priesthood for marriage, staying on in Denver and eventually becoming one of the church's custodians.

"My first Christmas here, I couldn't even find the Nativity," Ramos recalls. "There were the Christmas trees, which is fine, if this was a mall. Finally, I found a little tiny manger. How come this Catholic church made that part so small?"

Since a small Nativity didn't match Ramos's big faith, he set about enlarging it, enlisting the aid of fellow custodian David Morones, also originally from Mexico. Morones seldom speaks, and when he does, it's much more in Spanish than English, but he quietly brought a touch of magical realism to the parish.

"David walked in one day, wanted to know if I could baptize his kids," Medrano remembers. "Apparently he went somewhere else and they gave him a hard time, so I said sure. In my office, he saw a drawing, and he said he could do that. It was lucky."

Medrano had been looking for someone to paint the Ascension of Mary on a wall high above the altar, but he couldn't afford an established religious artist. Morones, who lost a leg in an industrial accident and wears an ill-fitting prosthesis, hadn't been able to find work and was willing to paint for very little money. He spent the next half a year on a scaffold near the church ceiling, creating his portrait of Mary. One day during that time, a 120-year-old sculpture of Christ, carved from wood, fell to the ground and shattered into "I don't even know how many pieces," Medrano recalls. "David said he'd never done any work like that, but he took Jesus up to the choir loft and put him back together so you can't even tell he was broken.

"I always say God sent him," Medrano continues. "When he finally finished the Ascension, Mary was surrounded with little naked angels, and they all had the faces of the kids who come to this church. You can see two of his own kids over there on the right."

In 1989, when Marcus Medrano became pastor at Sacred Heart, he was 53 and had only been an ordained priest for two years. He'd grown up one block from the church and considered it his spiritual home, but he still had plenty to learn. Although the congregation was heavily Hispanic, for instance, Masses in Spanish had been discontinued. Medrano, whose parents had emigrated from Mexico and Chile, no longer spoke any Spanish, but there was no one else available for the job. So he relearned the language and resurrected the Spanish Masses.

Then he turned to the other challenges before him -- such as keeping the church alive in a neighborhood that, despite gentrification on every side, remains one of the most discouraging in Denver.

"This neighborhood is bad now," he agrees, "but in the '40s, when I grew up, it was worse because of who we were. To be a Mexican meant that you were nothing. In the summer, the Curtis Park pool was reserved for whites from Monday through Wednesday, blacks on Thursday, Mexicans on Friday. After that, they drained the pool and scrubbed it so whites could swim there again. I decided I didn't want to be Mexican."