Mission by Half

Can San Xavier restoration beat the clock?

Hushed visitors wander through the San Xavier Mission's half-lit interior, some whispering among themselves, others snapping photos of the saintly army adorning these hallowed walls. By turn, San Xavier's iconography is a exquisitely mixed bag of benevolence and reprimand; some statues, kind faces cloaked in shadow, apparently glimpse mankind's better side, while their stern compatriots are not fooled by our charming but innate orneriness.

Bernard Fontana favors the former perspective, and with good reason: A retired ethnologist, he's spent most of his adult life helping bring San Xavier back from ruin, and only our better selves--in the shape of generous donations--has made that possible. Millions have already been spent in artwork restoration, and the west bell tower has been painstakingly returned to its original, gleaming glory. But now there's a catch: The east tower has yet to be redone, and time is not treating it kindly. Nor is the economy.

Funding for this next restorative step has bogged down, even as water seeps into the structure and wreaks as yet unknown havoc. Standing outside, Fontana points to a daunting crack in the tower. It's about halfway up, along the underside of a mesquite-trimmed balustrade. "Water gets in behind that," he says, "and until you peel off the outer layer, you just don't know what's underneath."

Ironically, this tower is also the victim of good intentions; over time, various protective efforts have resorted to concrete, which happens to be rigid and prone to cracking--particularly when spread over more porous materials such as the mission's original lime. Concrete also fails to "breathe," thereby trapping moisture. And the longer this concrete skin remains, the more the east tower will deteriorate. In turn, that means an ever-higher price tag for repairs.

Vern Lamplot is executive director of the Patronato San Xavier, a group Fontana helped found in 1978 to raise funds and organize mission maintenance. Lamplot says the east tower renovation harbors unknown challenges. "Our best guess is that it will take three to four years and about a million-and-a-half dollars. While that's less daunting than the five-year, $2.5 million task of refurbishing the west tower, it's hardly small potatoes."

The lower cost is largely due to fewer time-consuming architectural flourishes on the east tower, which was never finished with a dome. (It seems that even 18th-century projects could run into funding glitches.)

"Also, there are no balustrades along the upper part of the east tower," says Lamplot. On the other hand, "It's been open to the elements longer. But we're crossing our fingers that it will be cheaper and less time-consuming."

Still, signs of stress are showing. For example, Lamplot says that chunks of concrete have fallen from beneath a wooden balcony. More pieces are missing on the tower's north side, where it flanks a courtyard. Mold peppers the tower, "And it's actually coming from the inside," he says, "where water has collected, and spawned bacteria."

Architect Bob Vint is orchestrating this project. He says there's $150,000 in the pipeline for the east tower, but that cash comes with a catch: It's a state Heritage Fund grant, funded by lottery proceeds and offered with a three-year activation window. It also requires a 60-percent match. "This is the third year, so we either use it now or we lose it," Vint says. "That means the Patronato will need to raise and spend $245,000, and then we'll receive the $150,000 from the state.

"We're also looking for some money from the federal government. And right now we're on the county bond-election list for about $200,000. That could get thrown out next week or it could go all the way to voters and voters could reject it or pass it.

"But whatever they bond for, they're going to spend less money on it now than if they wait," he says, "because there's a lot of (continuing) deterioration. That's the peculiar dilemma."

The $1 billion bond package includes money for everything from the Pima Animal Care Center to purchasing open space for preservation. It's unclear whether the measure will face economically strapped voters this year, or be mothballed until conditions improve.

On the upside, the Patronato raises about $500,000 annually. Proceeds from the popular San Xavier Christmas concerts play a large part, "and the rest comes from foundations and our individual donors," Lamplot says. "The support network has been phenomenal." It's also been stalwart, funding extensive restoration of the mission, inside and out. "This thing has taken 20 years," he says, "and has probably cost $6 million."

But now, even donor money is tightening. "We did OK last year," Lamplot says. "But I have no idea what this year will bring. We know that everybody's hurting. There are a lot of good causes out there, and hopefully we're one of them. I hope people understand the continuing value of this place."

At San Xavier, continuation is indeed key. This old church recalls tumultuous times and sweeping change, as colonial Spain gained a foothold here. Even the architecture cleverly blends old and new worlds: flat-roofed, rectangular structures sweep forward into graceful belfries; vigas--interior beams rooted in Islamic and Gothic styles--support ceilings of saguaro ribs, mud and straw.

However, the grand church was languishing when the Patronato finally stepped in to start restoration. That's meant roughly $1.5 million spent on the richly ornate interior, with its endless stunning statues and brilliant art. Refurbishing the west bell tower was likewise arduous. A team led by local contractor Danny Morales rebuilt the exterior using lime--the original construction material--laced with prickly pear juice to help it cure.

Matching determination is needed to cure the east tower of its ills, before too much is lost. Today, that's certainly on the mind of Bernard Fontana. But he's not alone. This is a treasured place of solace for many, such as the Tohono O'odham whose reservation encompasses the mission. "They're not necessarily church goers," Fontana says, "but the mission is central in their lives. They're baptized here, they're married here, and they're buried here."

In his quiet way, Fontana shares that attachment. "We moved out here in 1956," he says. "Our house is just a mile away. I became interested in the history of the place and I've been here ever since."

San Xavier, it seems, has a knack for getting under the skin--and summoning our better selves to finish what needs to be done.

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