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Hidden secrets revealed during restoration work at San Xavier Mission

Southern AZ landmark and active church
Posted: 1:54 PM, Jan 17, 2022
Updated: 2022-01-18 18:40:53-05
San Xavier east tower restoration

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — San Xavier Mission is one of southern Arizona's top tourist destinations, but it also still functions as a church more than two centuries after it was first built.

That is thanks to constant restoration work on the building.

One of the men helping to restore San Xavier Mission has a personal connection to the project.

"Some of my ancestors might have been up there too. I'm just like wow," said Jarvis Juan of Means Design & Building Corp. He grew up going to the San Xavier Mission School and attending mass at the Mission.

Now, he's helping restore the facade of the building likely built by his ancestors 225 years ago.

"A lot of tedious work. What they did back then was pretty amazing," Juan said. "With the tools we have now makes it easier. I figured how did they do it back then?"

The restoration work being done now on the east tower has uncovered several interesting and hidden secrets.

When Pat Parris first covered the history of San Xavier back in May of 2019, then Paster Rev. Stephen Barnufsky explained about the cat chasing the mouse on the facade.

"If the cat catches the mouse then it's either the end of the building or it's the end of the world," Barnufsky said in the original story.

So far, the mouse, the building and the world are safe, but the current restoration work has uncovered that while the cat doesn't have any eyes, the mouse was given a big advantage.

Mouse with nails for eyes at San Xavier del Bac

"You can tell they have eyes, but they have nails," conservator Matilde Rubio said. "They are round nails and they were done when the plaster was still soft, because they are no cracks."

She says she's also impressed with the amount of pigments remaining in the nooks and crannies of the east tower facade.

Her husband, Timothy Lewis, is also an art conservator working on the mission's exterior and interior.

"It's a labor of love," Lewis said.

San Xavier del Bac restoration of facade

Lewis grew up on the Tohono O'odham Nation and has always gone to mass at San Xavier.

He has been doing restoration work on the church off and on since 1992.

Now, it's a full-time job.

Lewis and Rubio are working on the west transept of the church, the area to the left of the altar.

He's carefully chiseling out the concrete patches that are actually damaging the original building.

"Even using the materials that we use, we go back to the base of what they used back then instead of trying to use modern materials because it's more helpful," Lewis said.

The old technique they're using for plaster involves mixing lime with cactus juice.

Lewis and Rubio are teaching those restoration techniques to U of A student Susie Moreno, their apprentice.

Restoration work at San Xavier being done by Susie Moreno

Like Lewis, she went to school and mass here at San Xavier.

"For me it's preserving history, preserving what the people here put together and put their heart and soul into," Moreno said. "Trying to preserve it the way it is so it can continue to tell its story."

"It's not only for me it's for the community the Wak community, the San Xavier community. It's for them," said Timothy Lewis. "Not only them, the tourists that come to see it. They're amazed by it. We hear wows and oohs and ahs as they come in. It means a lot to us."

Much of the conservation work done on the church is funded by the nonprofit Patronato San Xavier.

They hope to have the east tower restoration done this spring. The work inside is a never-ending job.

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Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. His father, Jack Parris, is a former general manager of the station. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing pat.parris@kgun9.com or by connecting on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.