National Geographic : 1995 Dec
BY ALICE J. HALL ASSISTANT EDITOR PHOTOGRAPHS BY IRA BLOCK New Face for a Desert Mission * Mission San Xavier del Bac rises from the windy sweep of an Ari zona Indian reserva tion, secure from the spread of Tucson be yond. Visitors and wor shipers alike flock to this sanctuary, one of the few Spanish colo nial missions in the United States still serv ing the native peoples it was designed for. To prepare for its bicentennial in 1997, the Tohono O'odham (formerly known as the Papago) and a local volunteer group called Patronato San Xavier have embarked on a $2,000,000 restoration. High on the domed roof, mason and congregant Danny Morales is resetting fired brick with atraditional mortar of sand, slaked lime, and sticky cactus juice. "We went back to the old formula," he says. "We put out a call for cactus, and everyone in Tucson pruned his yard and brought us tons." Inside the church, conserva tors from the U.S., Italy, and Turkey have converged each winter since 1992. With four O'odham apprentices they are saving a happy profusion of saints, dancing angels, gilded ornaments, and star-studded ceilings long obscured by dust, candle soot, wasp nests, bird droppings, and water damage. This angel (left), high on the altarpiece, shows a face-lift in progress. Its right side bears the crackling and grime of age; its left, cleaned and repaired but not repainted, reveals an angelic complexion. New York-based photographer IRA BLOCK has long been fascinated by the history and peoples ofthe Southwest.