Heidi Derhy and her husband, Rami, walk into the newly repaired and reopened DeGrazia Mission in the Sun. The mission was nearly destroyed by a fire 2ƒ years ago. It reopened recently and a formal rededication is planned for Dec. 8.
A string of green rosary beads. An orange lily in a glass vase. A plastic toy go-kart from a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
Offerings are collecting once again on the altar at Ted DeGrazia’s Mission in the Sun.
Two and a half years after a fire that nearly destroyed the chapel, the DeGrazia Foundation has quietly reopened the restored adobe building at the famed artist’s gallery in the Catalina Foothills.
“We jumped through so many hoops to get this done,” said Lance Laber, the foundation’s executive director.
The gallery plans to hold a Catholic Mass and a formal rededication of the mission on Dec. 8, as part of its annual Fiesta de Guadalupe.
“It’s fantastic,” said Domingo DeGrazia, the artist’s youngest son, now a member of the Arizona House of Representatives. “We’re back to having a Tucson landmark that a lot of people pray in and a lot of people have gotten married in. … I think Tucson is going to be really happy to have that back.”
Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia built the mission in 1952 as a tribute to Father Eusebio Kino and Our Lady of Guadalupe, a venerated image in the basilica in Mexico City that draws pilgrims from around the world.
Laber said the foundation began letting people inside the mission again about two months ago, after getting final approval from Pima County.
Almost immediately, visitors started leaving sacrificial gifts and lighting candles, just like the ones blamed for the May 29, 2017, blaze.
Laber said the fire destroyed the building’s roof and wiped out about 80% of the murals DeGrazia painted on the interior walls. Much of the artwork that survived was darkened by smoke, muting the once-vibrant colors.
Eric Means, with Means Design and Building, was brought in to stabilize the walls and reconstruct the roof, using guidelines set out by the National Register of Historic Places.
The interior walls were plastered over to secure what was left of the original paintings, but no effort was made to re-create the artist’s work.
“I didn’t want to repaint in here. I didn’t want to fake the murals,” Laber said.
Instead, the foundation called on artist Ginny Moss Rothwell, who was mentored by DeGrazia in the 1970s, to paint the new plaster with background colors befitting DeGrazia’s style and preferred palette.
A row of simple, wood and metal benches crafted by DeGrazia have been restored and returned to the chapel after being scorched by the fire.
“They kind of look like skinny little French fries, but they’re original,” Laber said. “It’s amazing what we were able to salvage.”
Some signs of the fire have been left on purpose.
During a tour on Friday, Laber pointed to charred roof beams above the entrance to the chapel — the faint blue petals of one of DeGrazia’s painted flowers still visible on the blackened wood.
“It’s amazing they managed to save this. It was just getting ready to go,” Laber said.
Nearby, DeGrazia’s painting of Father Kino on horseback is still stained with black soot.
Laber said the fire is “part of the history of the place now. You’re aware that something happened in here.”
The replacement for one work destroyed by the fire was helpfully provided by DeGrazia himself.
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In a trapezoid-shaped space above the mission’s altar, the artist had painted his own version of Our Lady of Guadalupe directly onto the adobe wall.
After the work went up in flames, the gallery discovered a canvas in that same, trapezoid shape, also featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe rendered in colored beeswax.
The painting, which had been on display for years in the gallery’s “gold room,” turned out to be a perfect fit for space above the altar.
Laber doesn’t know what DeGrazia, who died in 1982, would think of the restoration work. It’s a question that’s kept him up at night, he said, but he knows there’s only so much anyone can do when the original artist isn’t around anymore.
“If he was alive today, he’d just repaint this stuff. Having 90% of it back is better than having none of it,” Laber said with a shrug.
He said some precautions have been taken to prevent another fire. A metal candle rack, similar to those used in Catholic churches, was installed so only votives in glass containers can be used.
But there are no plans to stop visitors from treating the mission as the spiritual place DeGrazia intended it to be, Laber said.
“People have been lighting candles in here for a long, long time,” he said. “I get it. People really hold this place in some reverence.”
Henry joined the Star in 2019 after 25 years at Nevada newspapers. A Tucson native, he graduated from Amphi and earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. He wrote about the environment for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 16 years.