Image: Mission San Xavier del Bac
Arthur H. Rotstein  /  AP
The Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Ariz., is known as the "White Dove of the Desert." Workers have been restoring the 226-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is still an active parish for the Tohono O'odham Indians.
updated 2/6/2009 12:05:31 PM ET 2009-02-06T17:05:31

The White Dove of the Desert is living up to its nickname again, its west tower refurbished, resplendent in a dazzling white finish once more.

The tower at Mission San Xavier del Bac emerged just before Christmas from the scaffolding that restoration workers had being using — like a butterfly shedding its cocoon, said architect Bob Vint, who spearheaded the five-year, $2.5 million project.

Now, it's on to restoring the east tower of the 226-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is still an active parish for southern Arizona's Tohono O'odham Indians. Its towers are visible for miles, and the restoration is intended to ensure that the structure remains intact.

"The interior of the mission is what it's all about," said Vint. "All of this exterior work is being done to protect the interior."

The mission, sometimes called "the Sistine Chapel of the United States" and the "White Dove of the Desert," is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. The walls of its Byzantine-influenced interior are ablaze with frescoes, a religious gallery of work painted directly on its walls by missionaries two centuries ago.

The watercolor portraits and statuary were restored a decade ago by a team including some of the world's top art conservators.

In all, 300 angels and more than 100 saints are represented in watercolors, sculpture or bas relief highlighted in a profusion of gold and silver leaf.

For both Vint and Danny Morales, whose family company, Morales Construction & Builders, has done work at the mission for more than half a century, San Xavier's restoration is the project of a lifetime.

"This place doesn't get tiring at all," said Morales, 47, who has spent most of his time for the past 28 years on many of those projects. "You always learn something. We've been here so long, but we still constantly learn something."

His 75-year-old father, Sonny, has been doing masonry-related work at the mission since 1947, and his son is the family's fifth generation to toil there.

Image: Inside Mission San Xavier del Bac
John Miller  /  AP
Mission San Xavier del Bac, sometimes called "the Sistine Chapel of the United States," is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. The walls of its Byzantine-influenced interior are ablaze with frescoes, a religious gallery of work painted directly on its walls by missionaries two centuries ago.
Repairing San Xavier's exterior has been a painstaking task requiring the removal of concrete applied during earlier renovations — most recently in the early 1950s. Concrete trapped salt-crystallizing moisture inside the adobe brick walls over the decades, causing the brick to deteriorate.

Morales and his crew employ a technique long used by Spanish, Mexican, Italian and Egyptian artisans.

After raking out the deteriorated brick and replacing it where needed with new adobe brick, they apply layers of a lime and sand mortar, mixed with a glue made from prickly pear cactus juice.

The moisture in the slow-drying mortar must evaporate sufficiently before adding subsequent layers. A mortar whitewash is painted on at the finish.

The tower's original projections — all its cornices, balusters, balustrades and volutes — were restored, eliminating alterations. The bell tower floor was lowered several inches to its original height, removing concrete and rocks added years ago. Mesquite was used to replace soft pine wood supports, door jambs and stair edges.

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"We brought it back to the way it was originally, by the use of old photos and a lot of research," Morales said.

"If you look at both towers, you can just see how the white has brought out the mission," said Margie Butler, a guidance counselor at the San Xavier Mission School and a Tohono O'odham tribal member. "It's so bright and clean, to have it look so nice again."

Visitors keep asking how long it will be before the faded, drab-looking east tower is refinished, Butler said. "I am really happy with what I see ... and how beautiful they have brought it back. The White Dove of the Desert — how it stands out."

Initial design work has begun for restoring the east tower, which is expected to take less time and cost about $1 million less because it has no roof, dome or lantern. The Patronato San Xavier, the mission's nonprofit support group, has received a $150,000 matching grant from Arizona State Parks.

Vint has said the building is the only one of its type in the United States.

Likewise, the restoration project is unique in the nation, he said. "I think there's nothing else like it."

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