Father Medrano restored boyhood parish to original beauty, helped needy souls

Late-life priest put refurbishing skills to use on Denver’s historic Sacred Heart Church

Roxanne King

He preached unconditional love, to always forgive and to refrain from judging. Knowing that the truth sets one free and frees others to walk in truth, he was an open book about his own struggles.

He had a special love for the poor and suffering—plights he knew well from a difficult childhood. Once a furniture restorer, he was a faithful son, friend and foster grandfather. Above all, he was a dedicated priest.

Father Marcus Medrano, former longtime pastor of historic Sacred Heart Church in Denver, died April 4. He was 83.

“He was a man of God, but he was also a man of the people,” said Jennifer Ramos, 22, in a eulogy at the priest’s vigil and rosary held at Sacred Heart on April 11.

“Sacred Heart Church meant a lot to him,” she continued. “He attended this church along with his mother and was an altar boy. He grew up in this [Curtis Park] neighborhood. He was shaped by the poverty and injustices that he witnessed in this community.”

By the time Marcus Medrano dropped out of high school at age 15 to work as a laborer at a box company, his father had already been dead eight years, and two sisters had died, both at age 6. He earned a high school equivalency certificate, belonged to a religious community for a time and later worked in furniture restoration.

At age 44, he entered St. Thomas Seminary. After earning a bachelor’s degree and completing formation, he was ordained to the priesthood on Aug. 2, 1986. In his 20 years of active ministry, he only had two assignments: two years as parochial vicar at St. Joan of Arc Church in Arvada, followed by 18 years as pastor at Sacred Heart.

He was the first diocesan pastor of the now 140-year-old church—the oldest continuously operating Catholic church in Denver—which had been run by the Jesuit order since it’s inception. Located at the corner of 27th and Larimer streets, early parishioners had included Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, second wife of silver king Horace Tabor; the “unsinkable Molly Brown” of Titanic fame, and Servant of God Julia Greeley, an ex-slave known for her heroic charity to the poor. By the time he attended the parish grade school, however, the neighborhood had fallen on hard times. When he became the church’s pastor, although the area was gentrifying, the parish served a largely low-income Hispanic population.

Wanting to return the once grand but by then shabby church to its original beauty, Father Medrano rolled up his sleeves and with the help of two others put his restoration skills to use refurbishing the altar, pews and woodwork. He hired down-and-out artists to restore the original murals. Aided by a grant from the Colorado Historical Society and donations, he replaced the deteriorating steeple and had the church exterior sandblasted to expose the red brick hidden by dingy yellowish paint. In an interview with the Denver Catholic Register in the year 2000 when Sacred Heart was named a jubilee year pilgrimage site, Father Medrano likened the renovation to the spiritual conversion the Church calls people to.

“The Lord is stripping you down” he said, to reveal the beauty covered over “with the ugliness of sin or whatever happens to us in our lives.”

He was as adamant about feeding bodies as he was souls. His instructions to staffers regarding the parish’s food bank were that no one was to be turned away. When those asking financial assistance depleted the parish’s meager resources, Father Medrano gave from his own pocket.

“He was well-known for that,” said longtime friend Javier Ramos, who helped Father Medrano with the church renovations and whose daughter Jennifer and wife Myrna eulogized the family’s former pastor.

The Ramos family, which also includes a 7- and an 18-year-old, thinks of Father Medrano not only as their former pastor, but also as kin. When Father Medrano retired in 2006, both of his parents and all five of his siblings had already died, so he went to live with the Ramos.

“Father Medrano was a very humble man, unassuming. I don’t think I ever would have known about the woodworking he did at Sacred Heart had I not read about it in the paper,” said Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, former vicar for clergy and now pastor at St. Joseph Church in central Denver. “That’s in line with St. Francis at San Damiano Church, which he repaired, only later realizing God meant for him to rebuild not that one rundown church but the entire Church. That was Father Medrano—he used his skills to rebuild his church, to be a good steward.”

In retirement, Msgr. Schmitz said, Father Medrano was always willing to help out in the parishes and readily did so.

“Father Medrano exemplified his faith and vocation,” Myrna Ramos said in her eulogy. “He practiced what he preached.”

“I don’t like for people to hear ‘The priest isn’t here.’ I try to help them,” Father Medrano told the Denver Catholic Register in 2000. “I love being a priest.”

Funeral Mass was at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception April 13. Burial was at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”