On the way back, having run out of money, the women drove through the night rather than stop to rest. At 3 a.m., they were passing through a particularly dangerous stretch of road called "Espinosa del Diablo" (the Devil's Spine). Carlota, who was at the wheel, was nearly asleep. Suddenly she was awakened by a loud clapping sound and saw a white light in front of the car. She slammed on the brakes and a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared before her. She woke Frances to take over as driver and when the two got out of the vehicle to change places, they noticed that the car had stopped just four feet from the edge of the cliff. The vision of Our Lady had essentially saved their lives.
Carlota kept her vision to herself until she returned to Denver. Then she shared it with a fellow artist who told her she should paint La Virgen de Guadalupe just as she had seen her.
In 1976, Carlota met Fr. Jose Maria Lara, then pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Denver. She asked Fr. Lara if she could paint a small (8x8) image of her vision somewhere in his church. To her surprise, Fr. Lara responded by asking: "What took you so long to get here?” He had been waiting for her and Carlota was instructed to paint the entire wall behind the altar, as well as a piece of the ceiling above it. The mural was completed in 1978. Carlota drew San Juan Diego in Anton Mendez's likeness.
Carlota called the project a "labor of love" and told a reporter from the Denver Daily News that "the whole time I was praying while I was painting it, and I was praying that a lot of these people, they go in there with such broken hearts and pain in their lives because life is, it’s hard to be human, and so I would say prayers to the Blessed Mother to please help the people that were coming to pray to her if they looked at my mural and wanted her guidance.”
Fr. Lara was pleased with the mural and told El Semanario: "I have seen many murals of Our Lady, but none equals Carlota's. I feel, and I felt at the time, that Carlota was painting it, that Guadalupe Church deserved a high quality mural to substitute a frontal ugly blue wall with no religious meaning. Carlota appeared as an answer to our prayers. She had the vision, training, and the piety and faith that represented the best of our people."
The mural remained behind the altar at Our Lady of Guadalupe for about 30 years until a couple of years ago when Fr. Benito Hernandez took over as pastor. Fr. Hernandez did not care for the mural and walled it off, painting over the parts of the mural that could not be concealed by the wall. In a statement, Fr. Hernandez said: “The Catholic Church believes that the tabernacle houses the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and as such, should be made the central and primary focal point of any Catholic church’s sanctuary. As the pastor, I came to this decision after having consulted with our parish council. Together, we decided sanctuary's original background detracted from the central focus of the Holy Presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the altar." So the mural of Our Lady had to go.
Disgruntled parishioners organized themselves into a group called Faithful United/Fieles Unidos. They started a website, http://wouldjesushidehismother.com/, and gathered 435 signatures on a letter to Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput last month, protesting their pastor's actions. The parishioners beg to differ with Fr. Jorge de los Santos, Vicar for Hispanic Affairs of the Archdiocese, who defended the pastor's decision and added that the mural "was treated with as much respect as possible. Anyone who wants to see the mural can go behind the wall." Faithful United/Fieles Unidos say that, contrary to Fr. de los Santos' assertions, the mural has been treated disrespectfully. Folding chairs have been stored behind the wall, piled up against what remains of the mural. They are also offended by a homily preached by one of the church's deacons, William Martinez, who accused them of choosing their culture over their faith.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is still present in the church sanctuary, but only as a generic replica of the original Basilica image of her, framed, above and apart from the altar. It is a reproduction that has no emotional connection for the community, unlike Carlota's painting.
Meanwhile, the parishioners continue to struggle. Some of the women come to church wearing white as a protest against the "whitewashing" of Our Lady. They say they have been photographed by the priests and have been given communion only reluctantly. They continue to appeal to have their mural restored.
On October 5th, Archbishop Chaput finally responded with a letter in which he said: "I have full confidence in Father Benito’s leadership of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. As pastor, his decision to remodel the sanctuary was appropriate. I must also frankly share with you that recourse to the Denver Post has weakened rather than strengthened the credibility of your petition."
This struggle is deeply personal. One of the parishioners, Mercy Cruz, told the Denver Post that it's as "if someone comes to your home and tears up pictures of your mom, that would be disrespectful. It's the same thing." Another, Fran Frain Aguirre, believes the walled-off Morenita reflects the change of atmosphere in the parish. "The church is being run like a business, strictly nine to five," she said. "The previous pastor, Father Lara, used to take calls all night," another activist, Mike Wilzoch said. "This was the place where people could come to. We just want to come back home."
As for the artist Carlota Espinoza, she stands ready to restore her mural whenever the church is ready to take down the wall.
This is not a story about racism. The major protagonists on both sides of the conflict are Hispanic. Rather, it is a story about the patriarchal "Church as It" trying to dominate and eliminate the "Church as She". For many women, it is in fact Fr. Hernandez's claim that Our Lady of Guadalupe detracts from Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament that is theologically lacking. Guadalupe is traditionally portrayed as a pregnant woman, the Mother of God. As we say when we pray the Holy Rosary: "Dios te salve, Maria Santisima, templo, trono y sagrario de la Santisima Trinidad...", words that must surely be familiar to Fr. Hernandez, pre-dating his seminary education. If we truly believe this, then there should be no problem accommodating the mural AND the tabernacle behind the altar.
Photos (top to bottom): The sanctuary with the original mural; a detail from the mural; the walled-off mural today, the altar area as it looks today.