Restoring the Faith – Albuquerque Journal
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CÓRDOVA — It took eight weeks of meticulous, painstaking work by three northern New Mexico santeros to refurbish and clean three large altar screens at the historic St. Antonio de Padua Catholic Church in this small village of 400 inhabitants east of Española.
On Saturday, the trio, bonded by the camaraderie of their efforts, were proud to exhibit and explain their work at a public reception.
The church dates from 1832, although Córdoba was populated around 1750. The screens, with their colorful retablos and bultos, are the work of José Rafael Aragón, “one of the most prolific and popular santeros of the New -19th Century Mexico,” according to a New Mexico State Records Center & Archives article by William Wroth. “Santeros are image-makers of saints, known in New Mexico as santos,” the website notes.
The Córdova project is the work of Nuevo Mexico Profundo, developed by Frank Graziano, Rebecca Montoya and Pete Warzel, which aims to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration of historic churches while strengthening economic development in rural areas. . It was funded by the Thaw Charitable Trust, Susan Foote and other private donors.
Graziano, a retired professor of Latin American studies who now lives in Chamisal, has spent his entire career studying the religious cultures of Latin America.
“So when I came here, it was natural to do a project on historic churches here,” Graziano said in an interview on Saturday as he greeted visitors.
The santeros process
As Graziano welcomed visitors to the church, just off NM 76 – the High Road to Taos – santeros Victor Goler, Felix Lopez and Jerry Sandoval were inside to explain how they preserve the religious gems of the a story whose fragility needed to be stabilized after perhaps too many well-intentional cleanups over the years.
Goler, 58, from Taos, was happy to have participated in the work but at the same time made melancholy by its end.
“It’s been a long journey, a very rewarding journey and it’s great to be part of the preservation of a historic church in New Mexico,” Goler said.
For two days a week, for many weeks, Goler was joined by Lopez, 79, from La Mesilla in Rio Arriba County and Sandoval, 66, from Córdova, in the winter chill of the old adobe church as they cleaned and wiped the bultos and altarpieces. screens with distilled water and detergent.
“It’s kind of sad because the guys I worked with, Felix and Jerry, we developed a camaraderie,” Goler said. “You get used to coming to church and being around saints and all of a sudden it won’t be there anymore – kind of a bittersweet finish to it all.”
Much of the work on the altars was done a small part of each object at a time, something that was not lost on Graziano.
“I think it’s amazing. One of the things that fascinates me about this is the detail involved in making this work,” he said. “When it’s all done, the overall effect is so impactful…so visual, I’m thrilled,” Graziano said.
A personal connection
For Santero Lopez, the work of the altar was more than a labor of love preserving the heritage of the villages. His parents are from Cordoba and his great-grandparents are buried in the courtyard of the church and lived in the village at the same time that José Rafael Aragón was performing his altar screen art and probably attending his funeral , Lopez said.
Now, the screens and the heritage they illustrate have been preserved for generations to come, Lopez believes.
“They were in a very fragile, rapidly deteriorating condition and they needed to be rescued just for the future of this community and really for New Mexico as well,” he said. “These are the treasures we have had for centuries.”
All those cold mornings of screen work culminated in the Saturday celebration enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
“It’s a great achievement, it was a challenge but a very valuable experience to be able to bring these beautiful images of José Rafael Aragón back to life,” Lopez said.
PD Morris, of Santa Fe, was among those at the reception on Saturday who had never been to church. She and the other guests munched on biscochitos and other local-prepared treats while browsing and learning about the refurbished displays.
“The passion of the people who worked on the restoration of these very old panels for many months is evident, but in a discreet and respectful way, as if they were only protectors of history, of the faith and sense of purpose,” Morris said.
Even expert santeros like Goler learn more from each project they take on. Goler not only gained a greater knowledge of José Rafael Aragón, his work and his family “but also how he constructed many of his pieces”.
Rafael Aragón used a layer of gesso (a primer – often made from animal hide glue) not only as a base for the painting, but also to create detail on the religious figures as a putty, especially on top heads.
Goler hopes the Córdova project could further stimulate interest in preserving historic churches.
“These are really wonderful treasures, historical treasures and so I think that will inspire more people to want to pursue these kinds of projects,” Goler said.
For Graziano, the expert on Latin American religious cultures, a lot of research has been done on the history, art history and architecture of historic churches in northern New Mexico, but not so much currently. .
“There was nothing done about what’s going on in churches now and that’s what I looked for,” Graziano said. “I went to the villages like here for example in Córdova, I spoke to the people, what happens in the church, how they maintain the church.”
There is one church in particular that Graziano and his organization are considering for possible restoration, but he has declined to identify it until the details are finalized.