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Column by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller
Today's Catholic Digital Edition

Glory days return to San José

Mission San José’s new retablo by Agustin Parra borrows elements from the mission’s carved façade and colors found in original church interior paint.
Carol Baass Sowa | Today's Catholic
By Carol Baass Sowa
Today's Catholic

SAN ANTONIO • One hundred years ago, visitors stepping inside Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo would have been standing in underbrush and the rubble from the old mission’s collapsed roof and north wall. The towering stone façade surrounding the doorway through which they passed would have held partially destroyed statues and carvings — another reminder of how badly the old church had fared since the abandonment of the missions at the end of the 1700s. It was a far cry from San José’s glory days as a thriving center of faith and life in Spanish Colonial Texas.

Fast forward to August 2011, with the mission’s interior walls painted in their original colors and rising tall and proud up to San José’s domed ceiling, a gilt-trimmed retablo soaring above the altar, and the intricately carved stone façade shining like new in the hot Texas sun, and it is evident the stately old “Queen of the Missions” has reclaimed her past glory — with more to come.

On Aug. 20, the day following San José’s reopening and rededication, members of the San Antonio Professional Tour Guide Association gathered inside for a special talk and tour presented by Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions; mission restoration architect Carolyn Peterson of Ford, Powell and Carson; and Tom Castanos of the National Park Service.

“We didn’t do this just to restore a building, we did it for deeper reasons,” said Father Garcia, speaking of the restoration. “We’re taking care of people’s lives throughout the cycle of life,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Founded in 1720 by Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, a Franciscan missionary, Father Garcia related that the actual building of the church did not commence until around 1768, after Native Americans had been gathered in and money raised for construction. San José almost did not come about at all, as Father Antonio Olivares was adamant that San Antonio did not need more missions, already having Mission San Antonio de Valero, today known as the Alamo.

Father Margil persisted though, and as a result we have Mission San José, as well as missions Concepción, San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada. He coaxed funding from the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo by promising to add his name to that of St. Joseph, to whom the new mission was to be dedicated and whose statue Father Margil already had in his possession. It is the statue that today graces the lower right niche of the new retablo.

After the missions were shut down by Spain, they fell into disrepair, but San José, as Father Garcia put it, was “so big and so beautiful” that it was kept going by different orders over the years, which is why its “convento” sports both rounded German arches and pointed Gothic ones. By the early 1900s, however, San José’s roof, dome, one wall and a portion of another, and part of the tower had collapsed, leading to the city, state, San Antonio Conservation Society and Archdiocese of San Antonio coming together in an effort to save the deteriorating mission that Father Margil had set out to make the most beautiful in all New Spain. In the depths of the Great Depression, work began on what would be the mission’s first major restoration, ensuring its survival into the future.

Father Garcia related the church was built in the traditional Spanish manner, with sanctuary to the east so the priest, as he faced the altar with his back to the people, would face the rising sun symbolizing the light of Christ. The elaborately carved façade of stone angels and saints around the front doors faced west, “the darkness.”

For the current restoration, Agustin Parra of Guadalajara was commissioned to create a retablo for the church. Its blue-gray background is a color unique to San José among the San Antonio missions and matches original paint trim traces found on interior walls, with shades of ochre and red trim from the walls also seen in the retablo, which displays floral motifs, shells and “guarda malleta” (resembling rising curtains) drawn from the façade. Some of the retablo’s decorative elements are painted in 24-karat gold leaf.

The retablo’s niches hold its original statue of St. Joseph, a statue of the Blessed Virgin from the late colonial period, and two new statues created by Parra: St. Michael the Archangel, poised to battle the forces of evil, and St. Francis of Assisi in missionary pose. The retablo also displays cherubs and the crucified Christ, with a magnificent “esplendor” bearing the Holy Spirit at its summit. Parra is considered one of the best artists in Mexico for his realistic statues, Father Garcia noted, and uses old techniques from the 1600s and 1700s, such as burnishing with the skin of a goat’s stomach.

The new altar, ambo and altar chairs were carved by local ARTchitectural Interiors, with Victor Salas using long leaf pine salvaged long ago from barracks demolished at Fort Sam Houston. Their decorative carvings are also drawn from elements in the façade, including the Sacred Heart. Contractor for the church renovation was Guido Brothers Construction Company. Restoration Associates was hired to carefully remove patches of wall plaster in the interior for traces of original color to match in repainting.

Carolyn Peterson, architect for the San Antonio missions for 40 years, noted the church’s roof was restored in the 1930s, with columns of concrete installed in the walls and ceiling to stabilize them. “In restoration,” she said, “you want to remember that something that looks like the original really isn’t.” Peterson commended those involved in that early reconstruction for doing a “really good job” with what they had. Ernst Schuchard was the engineer and did much recording of what still existed there, including the brightly colored geometric designs originally painted on the mission exterior. Reproductions of these were applied to a portion of outside wall back then and can be seen today. This lime coating prevented water leaking through the porous rock walls, and Peterson noted leakage here is a problem that still needs to be addressed. The sacristy, whose walls remained intact over the years and whose exterior holds the famed Rose Window, will also be a focus of future restoration work.

Commenting on what a thrill it has been to be involved with the missions for so many years, she noted a new surge of restoration on San José began with architect O’Neil Ford in the late ’60s, with whom she worked. During that time, she said, they managed to keep fixing things as best they could on a very tight budget. A study they did back then was the basis for the present restoration spearheaded by Father Garcia, resulting in the first long-term plan for the missions being implemented. “It’s been a wonderful thing for me just to see it finally happen,” she said.

In introducing Tom Castanos of the National Park Service (NPS), Father Garcia explained that the federal park system here is unique in that the four missions function as Catholic parish churches within a national park. Church property ends with the church walls, he noted, so the federal government spends no money on upkeep of the mission church.

Castanos, who has an archaeological background, reported on a discovery that had occurred during the present restoration. In digging up the flagstone floor at the rear of the church to lay new electrical and gas lines, an intact skull and scattered bone fragments were found. The Center for Archeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, monitoring the excavation, determined the skull to have been that of an adult, but it was not possible to date it and no records of burials under the church floors exist. Father Garcia surmised, based on church procedure in missionary times, it would likely have been either a priest or a Native American leader. The remains were photographed “in situ,” measured and catalogued, before a solemn re-interment where they were discovered, with a blessing given by Father José Antonio Posadas, OFM, pastor of San José.

“That was just a moment in time that stopped everybody in their tracks,” said Castanos. He recalled the words of his archaeology professor at the University of Texas concerning such discoveries: “Remember it is no more than a human — but it is no less. Treat it as if it is someone’s relative. Treat it is as if it is someone’s family. It is not an oddity. It is not something you display in a glass case. It is someone. Do no more with it than you would with your own. Be just as respectful.”

Moving outside to view the ornate limestone façade that surrounds and rises above the front doors, Father Garcia noted that restoration here was moving into its third year, with half to two-thirds completed. Work on the upper façade is essentially finished, and stone conservationists Ivan Myjer and Miroslav Maler of Massachusetts-based Building and Monument Conservation will begin concentrating on the lower carvings this fall.

He related that Myjer, a master stone mason who had worked on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, had commented that San José’s façade was among some of the finest work he had ever seen world-wide and that he considered working on it to be a crowning achievement of his career. The façade’s decorative carvings (some of which have five layers of depth) were originally chiseled out of the large stone blocks that were then hoisted into the façade, an amazing feat in itself.

The façade depicts Mary’s family tree, with St. Anne (holding the child Mary) and St. Joachim at the base of elaborate vegetation that extends upwards to Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Joseph with the infant Jesus. Flanking them are Franciscan saints, St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi.

Peterson noted that Myjer and Maler felt it likely different teams of less-experienced stone masons were involved in carving the lower façade, as there is evidence of the two sides not coming together evenly. It was felt likely that the upper portion was the master carver’s work, though who he was has yet to be proven conclusively. Two names in the forefront of the scholarly contention are Pedro Huizar and Antonio Salazar.

Father Garcia pointed out that black mold covering the statues and decorative carvings had been removed and the head of St. Francis, which had been about to fall off, was safely reattached. A notable project in the lower façade will be the statue of St. Joachim, who is missing an arm that held a book, for which a replacement will be carved. Where things are replaceable, that is being done, he related, but in some cases things will be left alone, such as historic graffiti from the 1800s.

“Not everybody appreciated it for what it truly is,” he said of the façade, noting in earlier times people removed pieces for souvenirs and used the carvings for target practice. “We don’t know what we have here. We really have something spectacular here that nobody else has in the country.”

Editor’s Note: Continued from the Sept. 9 edition.


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