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Beetles Mar California Church

May 19, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ It has survived catastrophic earthquakes and made it through devastating fires, but California’s oldest intact church hasn’t been able to escape its latest threat _ powderpost beetles.

The insects have eaten through 200-year-old statues of saints, left priceless wooden carvings crumbling and munched on treasures dating back to when San Francisco was little more than fishing villages and sand dunes.

The 209-year-old Mission Dolores chapel, now in the heart of San Francisco’s bustling Mission District, first showed signs of damage about a year ago.

``It’s been quite a shock,″ said Guire Cleary, the church’s curator. ``Hopefully the beetles will be gassed, but that still doesn’t conserve the statues. We can’t undo the damage.″

Pointing to the ornate wall of wooden carvings and statues behind the altar, Cleary says they have been ``eaten alive.″

Cleary said over the past year the working-class parish scraped together the $60,000 needed to fumigate the church, but he doesn’t know where it will get the money to restore the wooden statues and facades. He estimated the cost between $750,000 and $1 million.

``Each one of the beetle holes _ and there are millions of them _ needs to be injected with epoxy resin,″ he said. ``Financially, it’s currently completely out of the range of this parish.″

Jeffrey Granett, a University of California entomology professor, said it’s likely the powderpost beetles _ named for their ability to turn wooden posts to powder _ have been there for generations with little exterior damage.

He said the beetles crawl inside wood and eat their way out, and it’s possible they’ve been steadily gnawing away until now _ when the damage is finally becoming apparent.

Inspections of the beetle destruction have revealed another artifact that Cleary says is in dire need of repair. Behind the elaborate facade of the sanctuary is an 18th century mural that was painted with vegetable dyes by the Ohlone Indians, San Francisco’s original inhabitants.

``It’s crumbling,″ Cleary said.

The church’s main concern is preserving its wooden treasures, from its California redwood roof to its statues, all of which bear damage from the beetles.

``Our last renovation was just a few years ago,″ Cleary says. ``And it looks like we’re going to have to do it again.″

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