It is with great sadness we share the passing of Bernard “Bunny” Fontana, one of the co-founders of Patronato San Xavier.
Bunny, whose career spanned six decades, received a Doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Arizona (UA) in 1960. He was a renowned scholar and prolific author in the field of Southwestern history and archaeology. He was a cultural anthropologist, field researcher, archaeologist, historian, writer and the leading expert on Mission San Xavier, which he described as “one of North America’s great architectural and art treasures.”
He spent 30 years at the UA in roles including field historian with the library, ethnologist in the Arizona State Museum and lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1965 Bunny helped create the Southwestern Mission Research Center at the University of Arizona to support borderlands research and education. He, along with others, beginning in 1974, led tours of Spanish colonial missions in Sonora, Mexico, following the Pimería Alta trail of Jesuit missionary explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino.
He retired from the UA in 1992, but continued to write and research tirelessly.
In 1955, Bunny and his wife Hazel, moved to an adobe home just outside the Tohono O’odham reservation so he could attend the UA. There, the family attended Mass at the nearest Catholic church: Mission San Xavier del Bac. Bunny decided to focus his research on the neighboring indigenous community living on the San Xavier Reservation, part of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
In 1978, Bunny, along with five other community leaders founded Patronato San Xavier, a non-sectarian non-profit whose only purpose was “to promote the restoration, maintenance and preservation of Mission San Xavier del Bac.” The church, weathered by two centuries of water and sun damage, graffiti and faulty earlier restorations was in need of major attention. As Bunny stated “it is not an overnight emergency we’re dealing with. But if something isn’t done, the damage will be irreversible.”
In the late 1980s, Bunny and the Patronato advocated for and then organized a five-year restoration of the mission’s interior. International experts on art conservation were brought in to head up the restoration. “We decided that if we were going to do this, why not go for the very best people in the world?” Bunny told the Arizona Daily Star in April 1990. At the conclusion of this work, artwork and murals, clouded by more than a century of soot and dust, were brought back to life.
He devoted 10 years to painstakingly cataloging the Christian art at the Mission with photographer Edward McCain. The resulting nine-pound, 375-page “A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac,” was published in 2010. “What I’m hoping, is it’ll awaken in other people that we have a real treasure here that transcends place.”
Bunny’s personal ties to the Mission were even stronger: his three children were baptized, and later married, at the Mission, and the funerals of one of his sons, his wife and his own memorial service were held there.
Restoration and maintenance of the church continues to this day under the guidance of the Patronato, the group he helped found.