Volume 15, Number 3, Sept 1993, pp.23-24

Flooded River Damages San Xavier's Sister Church

by Gloria Fraser Giffords

The town of Caborca in Sonora (Mexico) is the site of a sister church to Tucson's San Xavier del Bac. Known as Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Conceptión, it was built after San Xavier, in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

Following flooding of the Rió Asunción alongside Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Conceptión in January 1993, a report was published in the newspaper El Imparcial about the damage that occurred to the church (February 8, 1993; page D1; "¿Restauraran del templo de Caborca: Pero cuándo?"; by Hilda Leonor Moreno).

In the following article, Gloria Fraser Giffords has translated and paraphrased the El Imparcial article (shown in brackets), and has added additional explanatory information.

The restoration of the historic temple of Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción in Caborca, Sonora, will take from eight to ten months to complete, but the question is when will the work begin.

The structure, which backs up onto the Rió Asunción, was severely affected during the extraordinarily heavy rains throughout northern Mexico in early 1993. On January 20, the undermined banks of the river were washed away, taking with it the apse, right transept, and most of the remaining convento of the structure.

The church, besides being of local interest, is one of the larger and most impressive of the missions in the Pimeria Alta chain. Begun almost immediately after Mission San Xavier del Bac (in Tucson) was finished, the church at Caborca is very similar in plan, size, and exterior decoration to San Xavier, most likely constructed by the same team of architects and builders.

Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción was begun by Franciscan friars sometime after 1796 and was completed in 1808. Secularized in 1828 but continuing to be served by Spanish clergy until 1939, the structure became the parochial church of community of Caborca.

The church has on three occasions been damaged by flooding. In the early part of this century, the apse and right transept (the same affected in the most recent flood) were swept away. The church continued to be in use by walling off the damaged and lost areas, thereby shortening the nave. (Curiously, the dome, which had lost most of its support, remained intact, precariously hanging there for almost 40 years until the apse and right transept were replaced in the 1950s.) Comparing photographs taken in the 1880s with those taken in the early 1920s shows that although the altar and niches behind the altar had been lost (if there originally had been a retablo, it had been replaced by 1880 with a series of niches), most of the figures had apparently been saved and placed in the altered setting.

Due to civil unrest and conflict between the clergy and state, all the churches of Mexico were closed by a decree from President Calles in 1926. Pieces of religious statuary were removed from the church and taken by pious individuals in the community for safekeeping. After the ban was lifted, a new church was built more in the center of the modern town of Caborca, and the mission church was no longer used for services and given historic landmark status. Certain items, such as the baptismal font, vestments, and furniture, which were property of the original mission church, were sold by permission of the bishop to collectors. None of the missions religious images are presently in use in the new church, however, the titular image which had been guarded and restored by a local family, had been returned to the mission structure in the 1960s. (It is not known if this piece was lost in the latest flood.)

Besides the replacement of the walls and roofs of the apse and transept in 1956, there was another serious restoration effort about 10 years ago in which the old cement repairs to the exterior walls were removed and the roof and exterior walls were repaired with the traditional lime plaster. The entire area was intended as a park for the people of that community; unfortunately, considerable landscaping with roses and grass was done at that time, including the installation of an irrigation system and stone paving next to the buildings walls (which is probably the cause of rising damp seen along the exterior walls.)

All church property in Mexico legally belongs to the government, per laws enacted during the Calles regime. Historic churches in service are currently under the care of the Secretaría de Desarrollo Social (Sedesol), while monuments (including churches which are no longer used for religious worship) p) p) are normally the responsibility of the Instituto National de Antropología e Historia (INAH).

Director of INAH (north-west division) César Quijada López states that resources for restoration of the structure are being sought from the governor of the state of Sonora, the Secretaría of Infraestructura Urbana y Ecología (SIUE), and INAH, as well as private participation of the citizens of Caborca. Involvement with the clergy is also expected to determine if the church can be made usable for religious services. "We cant deny that the community feels this place is a part of their lives..." said Teodoro Enrique Pino Miranda, local priest

Efforts will be placed in two areas: the diversion of the water as well as the restoration of the building.

The issue of the placement of a church on a flood plain has been argued as long ago as 1768, when Juan Díaz, the last Jesuit missionary and Juma martyr, described the area as being dangerously low and suggested the mission site be moved to higher ground to avoid the threat of floods.

Costs calculated for the project are estimated to be near 5 million new pesos [equivalent to about $1,400,000 US]. Besides raising the funds, there is also the problem of determining which agency is responsible for which task and where best to use the small amount of resources available.

One of the outstanding features of the San Xavier del Bac mission church in Tucson is the extensive mural decoration. Likewise Caborca, now, however, under layers of plaster and peeling whitewash. There appears to be a great deal of fresco work remaining in the left transept (part of the church unaffected by this and previous floods) although it is in poor condition and has been heavily struck in order to apply obscuring coats of plaster and whitewash, probably in the middle part of the last century when the brick, mortar and plaster Republican baroque style altars were installed.

A similar cover-up was performed on the visita of this church, Pitiquito, about 5 miles away. Here, besides didactic script which had been painted on the naves walls, are also larger-than-life-size skeletons in fresco on the piers of the coro bajo. Almost complete obscured by the ensuing paint and plaster jobs, they are barely visible in raking light.

Besides Caborca's importance as a historic religious site, the church was defined as a national historic monument on the account of the fact that it served as a fort in 1857 against Crabb's filibustering expedition from California which was defeated and its leader decapitated.

Gloria Fraser Giffords
2859 N. Soldier Trail
Tucson, Arizona 85749

About the Author:

Gloria Fraser Giffords is an independent art conservator and art researcher with a long-time interest in Spanish Colonial art. Her publications include:

Mexican Folk Retablos, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1974.

"Mexico's Last Saint Makers," in El Palacio, vol.83, no.3, 1977.

"Soul of the Mexican Trucker," in El Palacio, vol.87, no.1, 1981.

"Los Retablos," in Caminos del Aire, 1981.

Spanish Colonial Missions, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, National Park Service, 1988.

"Spanish Colonial Polychrome Statuary: The Replication of the Lions of San Xavier," in APT Bulletin, vol.XXII, no.2, 1990.

"Santos: Retablos and Ex-votos," in Latin American Art, vol.2 no.4, Fall 1990.

The Art of Private Devotion: Mexican Retablo Painting, InterCultura and Meadows Museum, 1991.

Mexican Folk Retablos, Masterpieces on Tin, revised edition, The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1992.

Churches of Northern Mexico: A Guide to the Religious Art, Architecture, and Furnishings of Northern New Spain from 1530- 1821, The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, (in preparation).

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