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A Ring And A Prayer
Rick Reilly
December 21, 1987
In Mexico there is a most unusual man of the cloth who truly fights the good fight
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December 21, 1987

A Ring And A Prayer

In Mexico there is a most unusual man of the cloth who truly fights the good fight

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Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength....
—PSALMS 8:2

The wrestling priest of Xometla has a toothache. It's 6:10 in the morning, and he's fumbling through the stingy predawn light of his bedroom for the bottle of aspirin, trying not to wake the 16 teenage boys sleeping on a row of cots that cover most every inch of the cement floor. The bishop may not like it—Catholicism requires a priest to sleep alone in his room—but the bishop hasn't telegrammed lately with any suggestions on how to put 86 orphans to bed at night in a place that is meant to sleep no more than a dozen.

Trying to find the bottle of aspirin, the padre finds a scorpion instead. Un-flustered, he mumbles, steps back, slips on the only pair of nonwrestling shoes he owns and stomps the life out of it. This does not make his toothache any better.

The portly 42-year-old, now un-masked (but never photographed that way) wrestling priest of Xometla routinely strikes fear into no one. He has bushy eyebrows, Coke-bottle glasses with square black rims, hair liberally seasoned with gray and a nose that, having once been broken by a bottle, he can push until it's flush with either side of his chunky face. Still aching from last night's leotard crusade, he stumbles from his room into the courtyard of St. Michael's, the dilapidated 16th-century church that is home for him, 72 boys, 14 girls, three women volunteers, four stray Doberman pinschers, 20 or so pigeons, four kittens and 109,000 flies.

The flies feel particularly at home at St. Michael's because there is only one toilet—and that rarely works—one hole in the cement for the boys to urinate into, no toilet paper (the kids usually use old wrestling newspapers) and a septic system so ancient that it could have been used by Montezuma himself. As an added bonus for the flies, a door with the windows broken out of it leads from the bathroom to the kitchen, less than five feet away. This is one-stop fly shopping at its finest.

The diabetic, overweight, chain-smoking wrestling priest of Xometla doesn't want to be up at this unholy hour, but if he is to keep this orphanage standing—if that's what you call what the crumbling structure is now doing—then he has to keep wrestling. And if he is to keep wrestling he must be in some semblance of shape, and that means getting up before the roosters and running through his tiny farming village of Xometla—about an hour northeast of Mexico City—up the road where the farmers walk their pigs and cows and then, dreadfully, up the mountain.

To force his rotund body up the mountain, he needs inspiration, and such inspiration is now walking out that same bedroom door in the form of 15-year-old Marco Anthony, the padre's niño Friday. Marco Anthony rubs the sleep from his black eyes, puts on the same clothes he wore yesterday—and the day before that—sticks his dirty feet into the white espadrilles somebody from the U.S. thought were long past worth keeping (though Marco wears them every day) and lags behind the priest as they make their woeful way to the courtyard gate.

Nobody else is up. Not the 32 little boys who sleep like pretzel sticks in one 11-by 13-foot room and not the 24 bigger ones who are stuffed into a slightly larger room adjacent to it. This scene has the appearance of a college prank. For the two dormitories, there are 56 kids and only one door out. If Xometla had a fire marshal, his star would be revoked.

Of course it used to be worse than this. Not long ago, all the girls had to sleep in with the smaller boys, all those kids in that one room with one exit. But lately the Confessional has been particularly vengeful, so the padre is able to rent two tiny rooms across the street from the church. He puts his 14 girls in there, along with the three women—kind of a permanent slumber party without the popcorn—and one shower to share with 72 boys in the morning. Then again, with only a four-gallon hot-water tank, why bother?

Sleep, cachorros. Sleep, young lions, for the padre is going to keep his crummy appointment with the mountain this morning. He will wrestle two matches this week—at about $40 per match—and that means you not only will get three meals a day; he might even be able to buy you some coloring pencils so you can get your homework done. Sleep, for soon enough you will be shuffling half awake through the kitchen into the tiny dining hall, where you will lift your forks carefully to your mouths, trying hard to be sure that your elbow doesn't knock the fork out of the mouth of the one next to you. Your turn. Now my turn. Watching over your shoulder will be Jesus, painted splendidly on black velvet but illuminated disrespectfully by one tired light bulb, hanging by its cord as if from a noose, without the benefit of a fixture.

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