Conservation | Preservation
Widely regarded as the premier example of Spanish Colonial architecture, Mission San Xavier del Bac is the only church of its kind within the U.S. that is largely intact in its original form.
During the more than 200-year history of the Mission, non-compatible materials were used at times in repairs. Since 1989, Patronato San Xavier has reversed this trend, returning to the use of traditional materials in the Mission’s preservation.
Conservation and preservation of the exterior of Mission San Xavier not only preserves the building as a work of architecture and sculpture, but also protects and preserves the original 18th Century mural paintings and statuary of the interior.
The Mission’s interior artwork is both literally and figuratively sacred: each speck of the original paint or plaster is irreplaceable, and great effort is expended in conserving every square centimeter.
By contrast, the exterior of the building functions like a skin, protecting the interior from the elements: rain and hail, heat and dust, cycles of freezing and thawing (Tucson, at 2,500 feet is above the frost line). As with human skin, the plaster finish of the exterior, including surface walls and vaults, must breathe and permit movement. The historic structure is a living, breathing organism and so requires constant attention and maintenance.
Exterior conservation and preservation of the Mission 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. Where the original material has deteriorated beyond repair – a point that has a different definition for each material – the deteriorated element is replicated using authentic and compatible materials, based on documentary evidence.
The work accomplished as a part of San Xavier’s conservation and preservation is carefully documented so that future generations will know exactly what was done and how.
In 1992, 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 the Mission’s priceless interior.
In 2016, young apprentices from the Nation began training as conservators at Mission San Xavier thanks to generous grant funding for a multi-year program from the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Marshall Foundation.
Patronato commissions Gloria Giffords, an art conservator from Tucson, and Miguel Celorio, a historian from the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico, to survey the condition of the interior art and create a plan to clean and conserve it.
1989 – 1990
Because of extensive water penetration into the church, Patronato requested the removal of elastomeric roof coating and two layers of cement plaster from roof vaults and domes, the Sacristy and the Chapter Room. The cement was replaced with the traditional finish of three coats of lime, sand and nopal plaster.
1990 – 1991
Repair the exterior and refinish with lime plaster the East Transept in advance of arrival of interior art restoration team.
Restoration of art in the interior of East Transept by the European team of conservators assembled by Paul Schwartzbaum of the New York-based Guggenheim Institute.
1992 – 1993
Repair and refinish exterior of the West Transept in advance of arrival of interior art restoration team.
Restoration of interior art of West Transept by Schwartzbaum team.
1993 – 1994
East wall of Nave — Repair and refinish exterior of the east wall of the Nave advance of arrival of interior art restoration team.
Restoration of art in the interior of Nave and Choir Loft by Schwartzbaum team.
1994 – 1995
Repair and refinish exterior walls Apse/High Altar (Retablo Mayor).
Refinish vault at the West Transept.
Restoration of art in the interior of cupola by Schwartzbaum team.
1995 – 1996
Exterior repair and refinishing of the parapets.
Restoration of lower half of Retablo Mayor by Schwartzbaum team.
1996 – 1997
Refinish vaults of Nave and Choir Loft.
Restoration of upper half of Retablo Mayor by Schwartzbaum team.
1998 – 1999
Continue exterior preservation; install updated and complete lightning protection system.
2000 – 2001
Refinish West Wall of Nave; remove 25 cast concrete finials around parapet and replace with lightweight, fiberglass replicas.
2002 – 2003
Repair and refinish parapets at perimeters of roof.
2003 – 2008
Repair and refinish West Tower, from foundations to lantern.
2009 – 2013
Repair and refinish Sacristy Arcade and East Wall of Chapter Room, Transept and Sacristy.
2014 – present
Work begins on the East Tower, including foundations, walls of the Chapter Room and the East Convento Room.