Life-sized La Immaculada statue completely restored for the first time in more than 200 years

Four-month process included removal, restoration, preservation, blessing and return of statue of Mary to her niche above the altar


Photo by Jeff Landers,

The circa-1790 La Inmaculada statue displayed in a niche above the altar in the sanctuary at Mission San Xavier del Bac has been completely restored and preserved for the first time in more than 200 years. A $10,000 grant from the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Tucson to Patronato San Xavier helped fund the project.

Scaffolding was erected to remove the life-sized statue, which was carefully packed, crated and lowered by ropes earlier January 4. Long-time Mission conservators Matilde Rubio and Tim Lewis restored and preserved the statue of the Virgin Mary and it was returned to church in time to be blessed at a church service on May 1. Scaffolding was raised again and the statue was returned to her niche on May 2.

The restoration and preservation process included mapping the damages; stabilization and removing an accumulation of dirt, grime and remnants of wasp and other animal nests;

“Many people don’t understand the restoration and preservation process. They think we re-paint everything. But we don’t. We clean and stabilize the art. We do not add or take away anything,” said Lewis. “We are just preserving history and paying our respects to the original artisans.”

In his book “Gift of Angels” the late Bunny Fontana writes “As with other portable statues in the church, this statue of the Immaculate Conception was undoubtedly created in a guild workshop, packed in straw and then shipped via mule to the far Northern frontiers of New Spain from the distant location of its manufacturers in some as yet unknown place in Mexico.”

“The transformation is spectacular,” said Miles Green, Executive Director, Patronato San Xavier.  “The original flesh tones of the face and hands have been recovered following the removal of layers of dirt and varnish. The color and detail of the robes has been revitalized and the extensive use of both silver and gold leaf applied by the original artisans is once again obvious with both metals capturing and reflecting the light. The Patronato Board could not be more pleased with the results.”

More information: Miles Green, Executive Director, Patronato San Xavier

(520) 407-6130 |

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Patronato San Xavier is a nonsectarian, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization founded by Southern Arizona community leaders in 1978. The Patronato’s only purpose is to promote the restoration, maintenance and preservation of Mission San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark since 1963 and named to the to the prestigious World Monuments Fund World Monuments Watch in 2016. 

In 2011, the Patronato began offering visitors free docent-led tours for the first time in the Mission’s 218-year history. Docents are community volunteers trained in the history, architecture, and culture of the Mission and its surroundings.

The exterior restoration began in 1988 with the rehabilitation of the roof and continued with the walls of the main church, the repair and conservation of the West Tower and more recently the Sacristy Arcade on the west side of the church courtyard. Restoration follows guidelines set by the United States Secretary of the Interior, with regular consultation with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office. Original features are repaired where possible, rather than replaced.  

Interior renovation began in 1992, when the Patronato hired Guggenheim conservator Paul Schwartzbaum who put together a team of international art conservators to preserve and clean the church interior.  The team spent six seasons conserving the wall paintings and sculpture throughout the church interior. Since 2002, Tim Lewis, a member of Tohono O’odham community of Wa:k, and his wife Matilde Rubio–both of whom had roles on the Schwartzbaum team–have continued the work to preserve San Xavier’s priceless interior.