About 50 years ago, our family lived in the Painted Hills Estates in the Tucson Mountains with our children. We had engaged a young woman to help with housework and care for our youngest. She came from an area in northern Sonora, and as she lived and traveled with us, we all became very close.
One year in December, she went to visit family in Sonora to enjoy Christmas. She returned with a package, rolled up in old newspapers, and said she had a Hanukkah present for us.
Unwrapping the package, we saw a rectangular painting of Joseph with the baby Jesus holding a cross. It had serrated edges, was irregular in shape and appeared to be part of a much larger canvas. We asked her where this painting came from, and she said it had been in her family for many, many years.
We sought to ascertain its derivation and provenance and contacted a professor in the art department at the University of Arizona. He said that, although he was not an expert in this field, as best as he could tell, it was obviously taken from a larger work. He thought that there was a time in Mexico’s turbulent 19th or early 20th century history when parishioners and Roman Catholic churches in Mexico feared that artwork hanging in the churches could be vandalized or destroyed by bands of anti-clerical revolutionaries.
He said that church officials would divide the larger canvases into smaller paintings and give them to faithful parishioners to protect.
My wife, Eleanor, took the piece to a framing company in which we had confidence, gave them some background, and we came up with a plan to frame the piece into an oval cameo shape to mask the tattered edges.
When we lived in the Tucson Mountains, the area was not nearly as developed as it is today. We used St. Mary’s Hospital as our local medical clinic. At the time, I was doing legal work for the Diocese of Tucson, and I mentioned the painting to the diocesan administrator. I suggested that we would like to gift the painting to St. Mary’s Hospital, which we did.
We presented the painting without much ceremony, and for years, when I passed St. Mary’s, I often thought of that image of Joseph and the baby Jesus hanging — I believed — in the office of the hospital director/mother superior.
Recently, I spoke to the chief executive officer of St. Mary’s Hospital, Dr. Amy Beiter, and asked about the painting. Dr. Beiter expressed surprise at my question; then I told her of the gift and its background. She told me that the painting was treasured by the staff at the hospital, but that it was no longer there.
She explained that when Tenet Hospitals purchased Carondelet Hospitals, which included St. Mary’s, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson had received the painting. She added that before delivering the original to the diocese, they had taken a photograph of the painting and it was now hanging in the chapel at St. Mary’s Hospital.
I went to the chapel, and it was, indeed, a photograph of the original painting. I have also recently seen a copy of the original painting, which is at the diocese archives.
Thus, a Karmic tale and journey of how a lovely painting went from a Catholic church in northern Sonora to the Roman Catholic Diocese in Tucson — as a Hanukkah gift.