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San Xavier del Bac Mission hits restoration milestone

East Tower's scaffolding, fencing removed Friday
Scaffolding has come down from San Xavier Mission's East Tower.
Posted at 7:50 PM, Apr 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-09 01:08:09-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — A project that began in early 2021 at San Xavier del Bac Mission is nearly complete.

The front of the mission’s East Tower saw major restoration work during that time.

On Friday, workers cleared the scaffolding and fencing around the restoration site, giving visitors an unobstructed view of the restored tower just in time for Holy Week.

Scaffolding covering the Mission's East Tower, as seen in Jan. 2022.
Scaffolding covering the Mission's East Tower, as seen in Jan. 2022.

“When we took apart the plaster on there, there was a lot of blocks that were really deteriorating,” mason Jarvis Juan said. “You could just hit it with your hand and pull it apart. So we had to replace a lot of those.”

The fresh plaster’s bright white color makes the East Tower stand out against the West Tower, but it won’t stay that way.

“Soon as the dust hits it, year after year, day after day, it’ll turn brown like this side,” art conservator Timothy Lewis said.

The East Tower is now different than its partner, which was restored about a decade ago.

Art conservators removed concrete on in the East Tower that’s actually damaging the building. Instead, they used the mission’s original materials—including cactus juice.

“It’s more compatible, rather than trying to use something stronger or better, which normally doesn’t work out that well anyway,” Lewis said.

That’s also noticeable in the designs above the windows: conservators stuck with tradition on the East Tower.

“We are not trying to recreate anything,” said fellow conservator and Tim’s wife, Matilde Rubio. “We don’t guess. We just keep the original as it is and this is it… History is the history and that’s it.”

But the work to preserve that history is far from over.

The mission’s front facade will get a facelift next year. And a project focused on the side and back of the East Tower is set to begin this fall.

The balconies on the front of the mission will also be refurbished.

And the work on the inside is continuous. Lewis says work on the west transept of the church—the area to the left of the altar—should be complete next week. Then the team will work inside the sacristy during the summer and the main dome in the fall.

“It’s tedious but it’s also satisfying,” said Susie Moreno, Tim and Matilde’s apprentice who is a University of Arizona student. “The before and after, and even if it’s not that dramatic, you can still, you know something was done. You either stabilized it or you’re documenting it.”

And this Easter week, Tucsonans can appreciate their hard work.

Juan feels grateful to be part of the team working on the sacred and cherished landmark, and to have received such a positive response from the community about the restoration work.

“Gives me a little good feeling, good feeling about that, the way that people feel about it,” he said.

Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.