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."

Medrano's father died when he was seven, two sisters each died at six -- one of leukemia, one from a gunshot to the stomach -- and his mother lived on welfare until she found work as a housekeeper at St. Joseph Hospital, a job she kept until she died. At fifteen, Medrano dropped out of school to work as a laborer at the Ace Box Company -- "and to become an alcoholic," he recalls. "For many years, I was a weekend drunk. I never missed work, but that was what I did."

Never married, he lived at home with his mother and watched as one brother became a serious drunk and another went to prison.

"If I didn't see my mom at Mass, receiving communion all through her life, I don't think I'd be here," he says. Although he'd been an altar boy and his first communion remained "my strongest memory -- like I had won the Lotto," by the time he turned thirty, his faith was wavering.

"I remember thinking the church was so complicated and full of shit," he recalls. "Because here you are, no matter how you pray, always falling into the same sins, week after week. Like drinking, like masturbation -- excuse the language. It made no sense to me. I hadn't really been taught that we're all sinners. We're very fragile human beings. Anyway, I made a conscious decision to leave the church but to remember Mary, because that's what the nuns had always told us to do."

Fourteen uninspiring years passed before he was moved to pray again.

"Yeah, I woke up with a hangover in a park," he laughs. "I knelt down, and I began to pray out loud: 'You son of a bitch! If you really exist, why don't you help me?' Then I went to the bar, because it opened at 7 a.m."

The next Sunday, on his way home from a morning beer at the same bar, he wandered into Holy Ghost Church, knelt before the statue of Mary and heard her say: Oh, Marcus, get up. Go to confession. She reminded him of his mother.

Soon after, Medrano returned to Sacred Heart, entered a period of spiritual advisement with one of the priests then in residence, and performed two massive acts of penance. For six months, he stripped layer after layer of paint from the church's old front doors; he built a small chapel in an empty basement room. He entered the seminary in 1980, at the age of 44. Seven years later he was ordained, the only member of his eleven-man class to graduate.

"It was surprising, the things that came out of my mouth," he recalls of his first assignment as priest at St. Joan of Arc in Arvada. "I actually sounded like I knew what I was talking about. That was the easy part. I also visited a family whose teenage son had just committed suicide. There's very little to say. You there. And later, at Mass, you have to say, 'If I cry, please forgive me.' I'm a crier, anyway," he observes.

In 1989, the Jesuit order that had run Sacred Heart since it first opened back in 1882 decided to leave, and Medrano was asked to take over.

"I came to interview the pastor to get a sense of the situation," he remembers. "I asked why the Jesuits were leaving, and he said they wanted to go work with the poor. My thought was, Where the hell else would you find them?"

He stayed.

The intercom rings in Father Medrano's study.

"José is here," says a female voice from the front office.

"What does he want?"

"He wants to talk to you. You know -- José, from the Spanish community."

"Excuse me," Medrano says, "but the Spanish community is full of Josés."

"Well, he wants to see you. He says he'll wait."

A few minutes later, the doorbell rings. A woman is dropping off a donation, having siphoned a small portion of her small paycheck. "For the families," she says. Soon after that, the phone rings. A family needs a small donation, for Christmas presents.

The Sacred Heart accounting system continues in this way until late in the evening. Demand outnumbers supply.

"Talk to the daughter," Medrano says into the phone. "She's the only one who speaks English. She wants clothes, size one -- can this be right? Excuse me, I don't know anything about clothes."

That morning, on the way back from Mass at the convent down the street, Father Medrano had seen the usual single women with children, just released from nearby shelters. "Why so early?" he wondered. "A woman can't go look for a job now, with four or five kids. How?"

The women moved slowly. It was cold. He was interrupted by an American Indian asking for money. "To visit his sick father in South Dakota, which was a lie," Medrano says. "If he would just ask for three bucks for a bottle of wine, I'd give it to him. I know that pain. I've had that hangover."

Later that morning, the church food bank opened, operating per Medrano's orders: Don't ask questions. Give food. Don't turn anyone away. He limped through the battered maze of rooms below the church (his arthritis grows worse every year). At noon he cooked dinner for Morones, Ramos and three other guys. A day off, he says, would consist of disconnecting the phone and resting in his tiny apartment, where the sheet music on the piano is open to "If I Were a Rich Man" and an Aztec-themed painting hangs on an exposed-brick wall. The artist was a homeless alcoholic.

"He finally went back to Guatemala," Medrano says. "He called me a few weeks ago, saying, 'Daddy, you got any money?' Such a talented man."

The front office again. "Father, have you forgotten about José?"

On days like these, he finds refuge in the huge, clean, empty sanctuary. Unlike the rest of Medrano's domain -- barely sustained by the contents of meager collection plates, nearly impossible to heat, smelling of disinfectant -- this space is full of lights, gleaming paint, gold embellishments and, of course, the Nativity scene.

Morones and Ramos are already here, wondering whether they should acquire more statues from Mexico or glue-on moss and grass from Hobby Lobby.

"They've done so much, and I'm their helper," Medrano says proudly. "Restored all the stained glass, stripped all the wood, built their own scaffolds. They do good work, maybe because they're not volunteers. I don't like volunteers, because you can't complain about their work. When they need help, I do it.

"But I'd rather do this than the usual priest stuff," he confesses. "I counsel someone, and they go out and I never see them again, and I never knew if I helped. At least here I can see what we accomplished. It's a Mexican village, but I suppose it could be Jerusalem."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
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