Today would be Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo's 103rd birthday. In 1959 he consecrated Cuernavaca's cathedral -- now world famous not because it was built during the time of Cortez, not because it's open chapel is the oldest Spanish building in the western hemisphere, but because of the man responsible for its consecration as a cathedral.
Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo known, affectionately and simply, throughout the world, as Don Sergio was as beloved by the people of Cuernavaca as he was scorned by the hierarchy of the Church, but that will have to be the beginning of another story.
Sergio Mendez Arceo put the diocese of Cuernavaca on the map by making a simple and plain cathedral the most visited spot in Morelos. Never meant to be a cathedral, the church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary has a single nave and numerous glaring architectural mistakes; even to the point of having Roman arches with no keystones. The Franciscan architects were amateurs and the Indigenous laborers had never built a Roman arch or vaulted ceiling. Construction on the church building started in 1529, eight years after the conquest, and was completed in 1552. In 1891 the diocese of Cuernavaca was created with the same boundaries as the new state of Morelos; the ancient church was chosen as a temporary cathedral. Over time its walls had been filled with niches and side altars. On Don Sergio’s instruction, they were all removed. The details of this transformation is, again, another story for another day.
Don Sergio’s Cathedral’s elegance now lies in its simplicity and reflects the vision and philosophy of the man. Don Sergio often said that without "clutter" the church could get down to the basics of what Christian life is all about in a simple and austere cathedral. The ability to have his cathedral reflect his vision was an opportunity very few bishops have. Most receive their cathedral already consecrated. You might think it is easy to pick up the furniture and move it around, but it’s not done. Once consecrated there are rarely interior changes. By starting with a temporary cathedral Mendez Arceo made the changes he wanted before the consecration. Those changes in the cathedral reflected his personal philosophy visualized as simplicity, Christ’s ministry to the poor and commitment to fight against injustice.
From his pulpit he taught those values to overflow crowds each Sunday. In his walk of life he lived them. Depending upon one’s political point of view he became known as the “Bishop to the Poor” or “The Red Bishop.”
The man is dead, buried beneath the very altar of his Cathedral, but his work continues. Upon his death in 1992, as the community mourned, the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy. Each year the Foundation gives a human right’s prize to the Mexican individual/group recognized as continuing the work begun by Don Sergio.
In 2007, Ignacio del Valle, leader of the people of San Salvador Atenco, imprisoned for defending his town and its land, received the prize. Amnesty International proclaimed the defiled female prisoners of Atenco, Prisoners of Conscience. On the day of the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo award ceremony, Nacho received word in his cell of a sentence of 111 years. His wife Trini and dozens of Atencans came, dancing with their machetes, to the Open Chapel at the Cuernavaca cathedral. They accepted and celebrated the national prize in his name. This year the sentences of the imprisoned Atencans, including Nacho’s, were overturned and tomorrow at Don Sergio’s birthday celebration, Nacho will finally receive in person the award Don Sergio would be proud to have given in his name. It will be a wonderful birthday party for Don Sergio as well as a celebration for the freedom of Nacho and the Atencans and you, dear reader, are invited to attend. 5 pm, tomorrow, October 29, Casa de Encuentros, Humboldt 46-B, Cuernavaca Centro.