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Newly restored Virgin Mary statue returns to San Xavier Mission

A statue of the Virgin Mary was returned to her home above the altar at the San Xavier Mission on Sunday after receiving a detailed restoration.

San Xavier Mission, which stands 14 miles south of Tucson, is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. One of its mainstays is the statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in a niche about 70 feet above the church floor.

Since January 4, however, she has not occupied her niche. The statue was taken down and restored by two of the church's conservators. 

"This is the first time that it was taken down and given a complete renovation," said Miles Green, Executive Director of Patronato San Xavier, an organization for the preservation of the Mission.

A special technique was used when restoring the statue so that conservationists in the future will be able to tell which parts are original, explained Green.

"There is a technique of crosshatching that shows any work that a conservationist has done without putting it back into absolutely brand new condition," Green said, "that is never the goal of a preservation."

Conservators worked for four months restoring the statue and cleaning years worth of dust build up from her clothes and face. The silver and gold leaf that adorn the statue has been carefully cleaned as well. 

So what was in the niche while the statue was gone, you ask? Green laughed as he explained the solution to the spot left bare when the statue was taken to the conservators' studio.

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"Actually what we did was we had an almost life-size portrait of the statue created on card that we put up into the niche where she had been removed. Because she is so high up on the niche it was almost impossible to tell that the statue was gone."

Restoring the statue has not been a cheap project for the Mission, coming in at an estimated $30,000. A portion of this cost was donated to the church by the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Tucson. The rest of the funds came from routine fundraising, explained Green. 

This statue, however, is not the only project that is being worked on at the church, as the entire structure is a historical site that requires a large amount of attention.

"Our goal across the last almost 40 years has been to try to retain what was there and to clean it and bring it back to as close as what was there when the church was first built," Green said. "Our process is ongoing."

Since the group was created in 1978, conservators have been working to save the White Dove of the Desert, as the church is lovingly called.

"There was already considerable loss happening because there was water seeping in through the roof at various points and a lot of the original paint was being impacted," Green explained. 

Maintaining the church is an interesting challenge for conservators, explained Green, as there are none of the luxuries of most modern museums.

"The doors of the church are open 24/7, it is subjected to all of the heat differential that you would find in a building that has no air conditioning," Green said. "It's like trying to maintain a museum without having all of the luxuries of having stable temperature and environment to preserve all of your artifacts."

The Patronato group is currently working on the maintenance and restoration of the East Tower, an ongoing project over the last two years.

Many people visit the church to admire its beauty and historical value while others attend religious services held inside. On Sunday, there was a special mass held to welcome the statue back to her home.

"For may people, the statue of Mary is an important and integral part of their worship, so I believe that people were very happy to see it back," Green said. "We are certainly thrilled with how she looks."

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Click image to enlarge

courtesy of Jeff Landers.

The statue was fully cleaned and returned to her intended state.