Restoration Makes This Mission Possible

18th-century Arizona edifice returns to original glory

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

These days are busy ones for workers at the 200-year-old mission that lies in this sweeping desert expanse.

Every day, there is a rebirth at the brilliant white edifice, located about 10 miles southwest of Tucson, Ariz. Whether it is revealing a new angel under the grime, uncovering a saint that has been hidden by layers of paint, or repairing walls marred by decades-old graffiti, Mission San Xavier del Bac is slowly being brought back to its former glory.

Square inch by square inch, an international team of conservators has worked for the last five years to preserve what many experts say is the finest example of Spanish colonial art in the United States. The results of their labor will be officially unveiled on April 12.

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"I've been here hundreds of times, but it still takes my breath away every time," says churchgoer Sam Mendoza, standing outside the mission during a recent Sunday mass. "What they're doing is amazing. They're bring out the beauty that was held inside all those years."

Conservators from Italy and Turkey, and apprentices from a local tribe have spent the last five years repairing the toll time has taken on this popular attraction. Working only three months a year, they have slowly removed the accumulated dust, candle soot, dirt, and varnish that had darkened the mission's large carved domes, mural-laden walls, and gold- and silver-leafed altar. The work has been supported by $2 million in private donations.

In December, workers began the five-month final phase, during which they put the finishing touches on the small choir loft and two of the more badly damaged areas of the 220-seat church - the baptistry and sacristy.

"It's beautiful now, like a postcard," says conservator T. Ridvan Isler, pausing during a midmorning break to reflect. "It will all be like that when we're finished."

The effort is the first extensive interior restoration since Father Eusebio Francisco Kino - a Jesuit missionary who arrived in the village of Bac in 1692 - first decided to build a church.

Franciscan fathers took up where Mr. Kino left off and completed the fired brick, stone, and lime mortar church in 1797. It was a sturdy structure whose walls and ceilings were covered with imported pigments of vermilion and Prussian blue.

Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, a retired University of Arizona anthropologist and San Xavier authority, says the church's visual splendor was in danger of being lost forever because of water that seeped in from the outside.

So in 1992, Patronato San Xavier, a local group formed to care for the mission, brought in a team headed by Paul Schwartzbaum. The chief conservator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Mr. Schwartzbaum was a consultant on the restoration of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel in Rome.

But unlike Michelangelo's frescos, the ones at San Xavier had been applied when the plaster was dry. That meant that the works had not soaked into the plaster, making them more susceptible to flaking and more difficult to restore.

Joining the international team were four Tohono O'odham tribe apprentices, hired so they could learn the skills necessary to maintain the mission once the preservation effort is completed.

Once the outside cracks were sealed, the team went to work to clean the interior and save the artwork from falling to the old church floor. A dab of alcohol or other solvent was applied over rice paper and a droplet from a glue-filled syringe was added to keep the artwork from crumbling.

Those working on the project say San Xavier is more than just a job on this small reservation.

"This is a personal and very special place for me," says Tim Lewis, one of the Tohono O'odham apprentices who has attended mass here since he was a child some 30 years ago. "It's an overused phrase, but it's like a labor of love."

Conservators say the work has been filled with surprises as the project moved from the east chapel to the west, on to the 52-foot-high main crossing dome and to the elaborately garnished altar that is flanked by two lions. There's the 24-karat gold earring found in one of the Madonna's ears, and the pearl attachment that was discovered below. It could have been laying there for decades, they say. A red-headed, red-bearded Jesus was revealed when the years of grime were removed.

Then, there was perhaps one of the most laughed-about findings - the bearded shepherd thought to be Jesus. When cleaned, the figure was in reality the Virgin Mary.

From one side of the church to another, the conservators have slowly been unearthing the more than 300 angels, 35 different murals, and 17 Virgin Marys that fill the mission.

Lorraine Drachman, fund raiser for the Patronato group and a devoted San Xavier churchgoer, says there has been more than just a visual change. "I think this enhances the awesomeness of San Xavier to the soul and to the spirit," she says.

Other worshippers say they would attend mass at San Xavier regardless of its state of repair.

"It just draws you here," says Joe Dockery, who has attended mass at the church for more than a decade. "There comes a time when you feel you have to come ... whether it's Sunday or not."

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