It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in a small sleepy Mexican town. The sun pierces the jet blue sky. A rooster crows in the distance. The local residents begin to file inside the church.

The bell rings, the music begins, the congregation rises and the reverend enters. However this is no ordinary Sunday mass and this is no ordinary reverend. This is Fray Tormenta (Friar Storm), the wrestling priest.

Watching the golden masked, 60-something-year-old priest walk down the aisle amidst the packed house of parishioners is quite a surreal yet energizing experience. Live music fills the air, not from a church organ but from two men playing an electric guitar and bass from the balcony above. The bass player lays a steady line while the guitarist uses a slide and credit card pick to lead the procession to the pulpit. Welcome to the house that Fray Tormenta built.

Fray Tormenta. Photos by Miguel Ortiz

Tormenta is in the news these days because of the new movie Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black. While the tone and hijinks have been dialed up to Hollywood levels, make no mistake, Nacho Libre is loosely based on a true story.

Both Fray Tormenta and his alter ego, Reverend Sergio Gutierrez Benitez have all the qualities for what’s best in being a true superhero. His alter ego wears coke bottle glasses but when he dons his mask, his vision becomes 20/20. He has a strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good and he has a special motivation, a sense of responsibility. He also has a strange fondness for spandex but most importantly, his origin is born from the flames of adversity.

Tormenta was born from a family of 18 children. His life of poverty took him to the dark side of crime and drugs. Hitting rock bottom, Tormenta sought help from a priest who gave him the necessary inspiration to continue on. It was then that Reverend Sergio Gutierrez Benitez was born. He vowed to himself that he would never turn away a child seeking refuge. A lifetime later, Fray Tormenta is man true to his word.

“Some 35 years have passed and over 2,000 children have come through my doors,” Fray Tormenta told SLAM! Wrestling.

Back in the church, Fray Tormenta offers communion to the people. To them, he is a hero like no other. Mask or no mask, his heroic deeds speak volumes.

The service has ended. Father Sergio says goodbye to the people then walks outside for some fresh air.

“I have so much to be thankful for… three doctors, 16 teachers, one public accountant, one private accountant, one priest, 20 computer technicians, five lawyers and five practising law have all come out of the orphanage.”

In the beginning, saying “yes” to every child that needed Fray Tormenta’s help was difficult to say the least. Money was hard to come by, bills had to be paid and mouths needed to be fed. “I became Fray Tormenta out of necessity. I had to support my kids. I thought that a wrestler made as much money as guys like Cassisus Clay/Muhammad Ali. So I decided I would become a luchador and in one year, I’d make a million dollars and I’d build the ‘City of Children’… but it was not like that. My first match paid me about $200 pesos or $20. I said to myself, Jesus Christ… after so much training… twenty bucks! But I was hooked and thanks to lucha libre, I accomplished many great things.”

The Padre chose the easiest gimmick; his character would be “Fray Tormenta” aka “Friar Storm”. Who would ever guess he was actually a real one?

“I designed my own mask and outfit. My mask colours are yellow and red. The yellow represents gold for Divinity and the red represents the blood that Fray Tormenta is willing to shed for his kids.”

Tormenta managed to keep up his anonymity for several years, serving God by day and dishing out pain at night.

“In the beginning, nobody knew I was really a priest. It wasn’t until two or three years later that my superior, Monsignor Torreblanca called me and said ‘Hey is there a luchador out there posing and wrestling as a priest?’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ He asked if I knew him and I said ‘Yes, it’s me!'”

The padre pauses for a moment, reflecting on the story; he adjusts his mask and continues.

“Well the Bishop wasn’t happy to say the least. He told me to retire from lucha libre. I told him… ‘alright, but every month I will pass by your place to pick up money for the kids.’ He looked at me in silence then said… ‘Okay keep wrestling.'”

As time passed, Fray Tormenta’s reputation and popularity grew. Rumours began to circulate — was he really a priest? The man who eventually discovered Fray Tormenta’s secret identity was no other than Daniel Garcia, the legendary Huracan Ramirez, inventor of the famous “Huracarana.”

“I remember speaking with Fray Tormenta on the phone because we were to wrestle as tag partners. He told me openly to come by his church after his wedding service. Well I laughed and said ‘Come on really?’ and he said to come by and find out,” Garcia recalled. “I did and sure enough… he was telling the truth. I remember saying to Rev. Sergio, ‘But you’re really a priest and you fight in the ring!'”

Once word got out that Fray Tormenta was in fact a real priest, it spread like wildfire across the country.

“Luchadores were afraid to fight me, not because of my strength or skill but they were afraid of the fans. They would shout out, ‘You can’t fight a priest!’ and they would throw tomatoes, garbage and even coins at them!” said Tormenta.

A couple of foes recalled the battles. “I remember a woman screaming at me for roughing up the Padre. ‘You’re going to hell Terry!'” said Black Terry. His tag team partner, Shu el Guerrero added, “Yeah, I was pretty much condemned to hell also.”

However not all was hellfire and brimstone. Fray Tormenta became a counsellor to the luchadores. “I think the beautiful part about being Fray Tormenta was that luchadores would confess to me. They would wrestle and then after, they’d approach me, kneel down and ask me to bless them. I would also go to bless their homes and even baptize their kids, I was for the most part, their spiritual source. It was something very special.” Tormenta smiles to himself then rises. “It’s time for me to go see the boys.”

He hobbles over to his car. It’s obvious that the years of pain and abuse have taken its toll. Every step seems to be an effort but in the end, it’s all been worth it, the kids are worth every injury suffered.

About a dozen boys play a game of marbles outside the orphanage. A banner hangs above reading Cachorros de Fray Tormenta (“Puppies of Fray Tormenta”). The Padre arrives and the boys run over to greet him.

“Let’s go train, boys!” shouts Tormenta. The kids, aging from 5 to 17, look excited. He leads them inside the building revealing an old wrestling ring. The boys rush the apron and climb in. They begin warming up.

“I have about 60 boys here. I used to have 250 boys in San Juan Teotihuacan. The house was bigger but we had to move to the state of Hidalgo to a much smaller house. There’s not nearly enough room. My dream was always to build the city of the children but I never could gather the money but I’m not giving up hope.”

The boys begin their training, running off the ropes, doing rolls and practicing their breakfalls. Tormenta climbs in and begins to run them through a series of drills. But it’s not always about the training. To the Padre, education comes first.

“I came to the orphanage at the age of seven. Then I started training in lucha libre at nine. All I wanted was to become a full time luchador, however, the Father didn’t want that,” said Fray Tormenta Jr.

“He told me, you have to get a career because one day you might suffer a career-ending injury, then what? But if you have a career and you want to practice lucha libre and you get injured, well, without a leg or without a hand, but you can still work on your career. So I got my bachelor in law, got a post graduate specialization in criminal law and now I work for the government for the state of Hidalgo.”

The boys now go through a series of moves with the Father. They come off the ropes and get hip tossed from Tormenta. Then he picks them up and proceeds to slam them down into the mat. A glint of excitement shines in the Padre’s eye. He’s enjoying himself and so are the kids.

Fray Tormenta Jr. looks over at the Padre. “There are many kids that, when they are little, they say, ‘My dad is a policeman’ and they feel like heroes themselves, or ‘My dad is a firefighter…’ and we would say, ‘Well, my dad is Fray Tormenta, so be careful if you mess with me’; so we would gain instant respect. To us he is our real father. We have always said it, a father is not the one who creates you but the one who gets you through life.”

Fray Tormenta is surrounded by his charges, as well as author/filmmaker Michael Paszt and Maye Ornelas

Fray Tormenta wipes the sweat from underneath his mask then jumps down from the ring apron. A woman waits for him nearby with another child in need of help. He goes over, removes his mask and introduces himself. The young boy smiles.

Fray Tormenta has traveled the world, wrestled thousands of matches and achieved worldwide recognition. Yet the wrestling priest has managed to keep his feet firmly grounded. “Fame is like foam: It goes down just as it goes up so the best thing that a public figure can do is be humble and simple with people, because fame is fleeting. We all need to be humble and more than anything, as I said, people should be able to know that even though you’ve achieved fame around the world, you should still keep your feet grounded because fame is not endless whereas friendships are timeless.”