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Religion in the News

July 3, 1998

WA:K, Ariz. (AP) _ Gabriel Wilson’s face lights up as he scrutinizes San Xavier del Bac, the spectacular Roman Catholic church that has become his mission in life.

``This is a very special place,″ says Wilson, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe who apprenticed with some of the world’s foremost art conservators. Over six years, they cleaned, repaired and restored San Xavier’s statuary and vibrant watercolor portraits.

Now, he’s part of the team tackling the mission’s exterior, with a makeover to guarantee that the mission can stand for another two centuries.

Widely known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier has a classic exterior: domes and two bell towers that radiate against the desert south of Tucson. They draw up to 2,000 visitors daily.

Also known as ``the Sistine Chapel of the United States,″ the church has exceptional interior, with artwork painted directly on inside walls by Franciscan missionaries.

Bob Vint, the project’s architect, says the artwork, executed at the height of Spanish colonization, was ``an audiovisual aid, for the priests to point out as accessible and real to the Indians″ converting to Catholicism.

The mission’s latest project has two goals: to ensure that the still-active church and its treasures, which underwent a $2 million restoration, don’t dissolve to powder, and to create a $1 million endowment for maintenance.

The problem: Patronato San Xavier, a nonprofit, nonsectarian group that developed the conservation plan, raised enough money for the interior, but the exterior still needs an estimated $800,000 worth of repairs over five years.

It was easy to see the impact of conservators as they used high-tech tactics to restore walls and flaking paint and revitalize the rainbow of colors.

But contributing money for exterior repairs isn’t so appealing. Cement from two earlier renovations that trapped moisture in the plastered adobe walls needs to be chipped away and replaced.

Though the facade is the mission’s internationally known symbol, it ``doesn’t have that beauty and glamour,″ concedes Lorraine Drachman, who directs the fund-raising. Yet, she says, ``if the exterior isn’t carefully preserved then we lose the interior.″

As resident conservator, Wilson spends two months a year inside the church, carefully dusting and vacuuming artwork, inspecting and repairing when necessary.

Wilson works for Morales Construction Co., overseer of projects at the mission part-time for 50 years, full-time for the past 10 years. The Morales crew has tackled the exterior each October through March since 1989, one wall panel or roof vault at a time, to reach original plaster.

Then, Wilson says, the adobe is repaired and covered with thin laminates of glue from prickly pear cactus juice, lime and sand, much the way historic buildings in Italy, Mexico City and Egypt have been preserved. Finally, there’s a mortar whitewash.

Wilson, who celebrated feast days at the mission as a child, joined the restoration project in 1992 after he found a flier inviting local residents to apply for work. ``I had no job at the time, so I said, `Why not?′ The opportunity opened up, and I got lucky.″

While restoring the interior, conservators made a fascinating discovery. Cherubs, angels and medallions of saints high on the west transept walls had been Indianized. ``The colors of the faces have been changed,″ Wilson says. ``They’ve been darkened.″

Why? Wilson suggests that maybe his ancestors were sad to see only European faces portraying the religion they embraced.

``Catholicism is something that’s now in the roots,″ he says. ``My mother’s grandmother’s generation, it goes further back than that. They accepted it in life. It gave them hope.″