DENVER Parishioners say for decades it was an inspirational sight behind the church altar: A mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, depicting when she appeared to an Indian peasant in 1531.
But now a Denver priests decision to build a wall to block the mural is stirring powerful emotions and threatening to strain the Catholic Churchs relationship with the Hispanic community here, who see the Virgin as a symbol of love, hope and equality.
God does not live in the building! yelled Helen Giron-Mushfig, pointing to the Archdiocese of Denver campus, where about a dozen people delivered a letter Tuesday to Catholic leaders asking for the removal of the wall.
They should understand more than anyone what our Lady of Guadalupe means to our indigenous people, said Giron-Mushfig, a visiting professor at the Metropolitan State College of Denvers Chicana and Chicano Studies department.
The group trying to have the wall removed, Faithful United, says more than 400 community advocates support its cause.
The Denver Archdiocese insists that most of the people who attend the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in north Denver support the decision to put up a wall, which the Rev. Benito Hernandez said was necessary because the mural detracted from the central focus of the Holy Presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the altar.
We have heard from people in the parish and in the broader Hispanic community that they support the renovations and find it beautiful. The protesters are fewer than those who support the decision, Jeanette DeMelo, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said in a statement with Hernandez.
Hernandez said the decision wasnt a denial of the murals value or a rejection of the artists original intent.
It simply gave the tabernacle the central focus it deserves, he said.
A few feet now separates the white wall, finished in December, from the mural. Hernandez said the mural is still open and accessible to those who want to see it.
However, the archdiocese said Hernandez would not allow press to photograph the mural, saying the church is a place of worship.
The archdiocese also did not allow media to accompany the procession of people at its campus as they delivered their letter Tuesday. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has criticized the group for going to the media, which DeMelo said the group is using to express their concern rather than going through the proper channels.
United Faithful members are adamant that the mural should not be blocked, and in the letter addressed to Chaput, they urged him to tear down the Guadalupe wall!
The wall is an affront to our faith and heritage, the letter said.
The church, built in 1948, has long been a center for Hispanic political activism and culture.
Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, said one of its former priests was known to wear the United Farm Workers eagle on the back of his red sackcloth chasuble while conducting Mass. Some of the churchs congregants went on to hold local political offices.
The church also has been a gathering place for Hispanics to celebrate during Christmastime with song and food and street performances re-enacting Mary and Josephs door-to-door search for shelter for Christs birth.
In 1977, Denver artist Carlota EspinoZa painted the Virgins mural at the suggestion of the priest at the time. EspinoZa, who said she had a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe years earlier, painted a mural showing the Virgin with the Indian Juan Diego kneeling beside her on a hill near Mexico City. According to church tradition, the Virgin left an olive-skinned image of herself of Juan Diegos cloak, helping draw Mexicos Indian population to the Catholic faith shortly after it was introduced by invading Spaniards. Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002.
To put a wall in front of her, I thought it was kind of sacrilegious, EspinoZa said.
Many Hispanic Catholics are fiercely loyal to the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom the Catholic Church declared the patron saint of all the Americas.
La Virgen de Guadalupe is the blessed mother, and she is our blessed mother not only in Mexico, not only in Denver, Colorado, not only New York City la Virgen de Guadalupe is everywhere all over the world, said Dr. Marta Urioste, who for 40 years has attended the Denver church on Dec. 12 to celebrate the apparition to Juan Diego. And so for someone to decide that our Lady of Guadalupe can no longer be on that wall is totally disrespectful.
Gloria Fuentes, 51, who has attended the church for more than 30 years, said she supports the decision to build the wall to make Christ the focal point of the altar.
Because the church is Christ, she said. Our lady is his mother and shes very, very important, but Christ is our church.