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: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King