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Big Jim: Good news from San Xavier del Bac

Big Jim: Good news from San Xavier del Bac

  • Updated

San Xavier in the snow. Temperatures at the mission can range from below freezing up to above 115 degrees. Jim Griffith photo.

After a long wait, the work on Mission San Xavier’s east tower is finally beginning. No, we aren’t going to complete the unfinished tower — we’re just going to keep it from falling apart. (DISCLOSURE: I’m on the Board of the Patronato San Xavier, the non-profit group responsible for the physical well-being of that wonderful colonial church.)

What’s going on is this: In a well-intentioned effort to preserve the building, the entire church including the east tower was given a coat of cement in the 1950s. This was a mistake, as the extreme weather conditions in Southern Arizona have caused the cement to expand, contract, and develop tiny cracks. Water gets into the cracks and into the bricks below, and then can’t get out. A lot of the fired bricks used to build the church have started to crumble, and chunks of the cement covering have fallen off.

What must be done is to strip off the cement and plaster, replace the damaged bricks, and re-plaster the church with a lime plaster mixed with prickly pear juice. This has been done over most of the church, and it’s now the turn of the east tower.

Of course, we won’t know what problems exist until the surface coatings are removed. There could be some really unpleasant surprises when that happens. The job of repair and replacement can get pretty delicate and complicated. Fortunately, the Morales family who is doing the work has five generations of experience on this particular building, and has other expert advice to call upon in need.

I mentioned surprises. Good and bad ones have popped up all through the work on the mission, and some are exciting indeed. Unknown details of construction keep coming to light, as no builders’ plans for the church exist. And there are the truly exciting surprises, like the small painted figures inside the scallop shell over the central window on the façade. These were only discovered in December, 2013, when the façade was floodlit for the annual Christmas concerts. They are pretty faint, and it’s not yet sure whom they represent, but they are certainly there!

Those Christmas concerts are themselves fundraisers for the ongoing work on the mission. The east tower project has its own capital campaign, which started quietly in 2013, and has raised $800,000 so far. This campaign has just gone public, and its goal is $3 million. Obviously, we need all the help we can get. Donations may be made online to, or by mail to Patronato San Xavier, P.O.Box 31702, Tucson, AZ 85751.

I was going to finish up with a bit of inspirational poetry supporting the restoration work at the mission, rather on the lines of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic about Old Ironsides. I had gotten as far as “Aye, tear her battered buttress down” when my wife unplugged the computer.

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