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'White Dove' Mission Brightens Desert Vista Near Tucson

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By Arthur H. Rotstein
Associated Press
Sunday, February 8, 2009

The "White Dove of the Desert" in Tucson is living up to its nickname again, its west tower refurbished, resplendent in a dazzling white finish once more.

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The restored tower at Mission San Xavier del Bac emerged from its scaffolding just before Christmas like a butterfly shedding its cocoon, said architect Bob Vint, who spearheaded the five-year, $2.5 million project.

Now, it's on to restoring the east tower of the 226-year-old Roman Catholic church, still an active parish for southern Arizona's Tohono O'odham Indians. Its towers are visible for miles.

"The interior of the mission is what it's all about," Vint said. "All of this exterior work is being done to protect the interior."

The mission, sometimes called "the Sistine Chapel of the United States" as well as the "White Dove of the Desert," is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. The walls of its Byzantine-influenced interior are ablaze with frescoes, a gallery of religious work painted directly on its walls by missionaries two centuries ago.

The watercolor portraits and statuary were restored a decade ago by a team including some of the world's top art conservators.

In all, 300 angels and more than 100 saints are represented in watercolors, sculpture or bas-relief highlighted in a profusion of gold and silver leaf.

For Vint and Danny Morales, whose family company, Morales Construction & Builders, has done work at the mission for more than half a century, San Xavier's restoration is the project of a lifetime.

"This place doesn't get tiring at all," said Morales, 47, who has spent most of his time for the past 28 years on San Xavier projects. "You always learn something. We've been here so long, but we still constantly learn something."

His 75-year-old father, Sonny, has been doing masonry-related work at the mission since 1947, and his son is the family's fifth generation to toil there.

Repairing San Xavier's exterior has required the removal of concrete applied during earlier renovations, most recently in the early 1950s. The concrete trapped moisture inside the adobe brick walls over the decades, causing the brick to deteriorate.

Morales and his crew employ a technique long used by Spanish, Mexican, Italian and Egyptian artisans.

After raking out the deteriorated brick and replacing it where needed with new adobe brick, they apply layers of a lime-and-sand mortar, mixed with a glue made from the juice of prickly pear cactus.

The moisture in the slow-drying mortar must evaporate sufficiently before subsequent layers are added. A mortar whitewash is painted on at the finish.

The tower's original projections (all its cornices, balusters, balustrades and volutes) were restored, eliminating later alterations. The bell-tower floor was lowered several inches, to its original height. Mesquite was used to replace supports, door jambs and stair edges made of soft pine.

"We brought it back to the way it was originally, by the use of old photos and a lot of research," Morales said.

"If you look at both towers, you can just see how the white has brought out the mission," said Margie Butler, a guidance counselor at the San Xavier Mission School and a Tohono O'odham tribal member. "It's so bright and clean."

Initial design work has begun for restoring the east tower, which is expected to take less time and cost about $1 million less because it has no roof, dome or lantern. The Patronato San Xavier, the mission's nonprofit support group, has received a $150,000 matching grant from Arizona State Parks.

Mission San Xavier del Bac, 1950 W. San Xavier Rd., San Xavier District, on Arizona's Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation south of Tucson, a little less than a mile off Interstate 19, Exit 92, and about 20 minutes from Tucson International Airport; 520-294-2624, http://www.sanxaviermission.org. The church is open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.


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