The treasures hidden in the Church of San Antonio de Padua in Cordova are undergoing a careful restoration.
The retablos (painted altar screens) and bultos (statues) come from the construction of the historic church in 1832; they depict Catholic saints and events such as the crucifixion.
The project is led by Nuevo Mexico Profundo, a non-profit organization that was founded in 2018 to raise money for the preservation of historic churches. Over the next few weeks, three altar screens and 22 statues by José Rafael Aragón, a master santero or creator of religious images, will be restored.
“I chose this project because it had to be done,” said Frank Graziano, founder and CEO of Nuevo Mexico Profundo.
Cordova is a village with about 500 inhabitants between Española and Peñasco on the High Road to Taos (NM 76). Originally called Pueblo Quemado – because of a charred pueblo ruin nearby – the town established a post office in 1900 and changed its name to Cordova, the name of a local prominent family.
According to historical church documents, the Church of San Antonio de Padua was built in 1832 and made of adobe bricks. It includes an altar at the west end and a choir gallery at the east end, where two double doors sit under the bell tower.
“Only a small group of us consistently use the church,” says Angelo Sandoval, who heads the church as mayor. He said it is used occasionally for funerals, but it hasn’t held a constant mass in at least 10 years.
“We have a mass on the feast day of our patron saint on June 13th or next Sunday,” he said. San Antonio de Padua was a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order who died on June 13, 1231.
The wooden retablos are behind and on either side of the altar. The middle screen is about 10 feet tall and
14 feet wide and the two side walls are about 12 feet high and 6 feet wide.
On the screens are in red, green, gold, black and blue depictions of Saint Gertrude the Great, Our Lady of Sorrows, the Franciscan Shield, Saint Peter the Apostle, the Archangel Raphael, the Archangel Michael, Our Lady Refuge for sinners, St. Claire of Assisi and more.
In front of the 12 to 20 inch screens are 22 Bultos, including Jesus on the cross, Jesus as a boy, the Virgin Mary, St. Anthony of Padua and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Graziano said he raised $ 24,000 for the restoration. Major donors include the Thaw Charitable Trust, Susan Foote, and Anne and Jeff Bingaman. Bingaman represented New Mexico as a US Senator from 1983 to 2013.
The restoration is to be carried out from Monday over several weeks by Master Santero and restorer Victor Goler with the consent of the Archbishop’s Commission for the Preservation of Historic Churches in New Mexico.
He is supported by the master anteros Felix Lopez and Jerry Sandoval (uncle of the mayor of San Antonio de Padua, Angelo Sandoval).
Goler, 58, lives in Taos, where he creates religious paintings and restores religious artifacts. He grew up in a family of restorers and started working with his father and uncles when he was 13, he said.
Goler has worked at La Iglesia de Santa Cruz de la Cañada, the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Arroyo Seco, and the Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Questa.
He also worked as a curator for the Harwood Museum of Art, the Millicent Rogers Museum, and the Tesoros de Devoción (The Larry Frank Collection) at the New Mexico History Museum.
“I know the materials used well,” says Goler. “José Rafael Aragón, his methods were very traditional.”
The wood for the screens and statues would likely be ponderosa pine, and the gesso (primer) would be an animal hide glue mixed with white plaster, Goler said.
“As for the pigments, you had to grind them all up yourself,” said Goler, using minerals, plants and beetles for the colors. Artists also made varnishes by distilling grain alcohol and using it to dilute tree sap.
“What we’re doing in this conservation effort is we’re just conserving,” he said. The process includes surface cleaning, stabilizing the pigment and sealing the work with a high quality varnish.
The process involves making an animal skin glue from Russian marine sturgeon and taping the paint back onto the gesso. Goler and his team will use syringes to get the glue behind the chipped paint. He said all work will be done on the site and will take around 200 hours to complete.
Sandoval, 43, who lives in Cordova, hopes the restoration will preserve the art and reinvigorate the community.
“I want to make sure that I leave the church in better shape so that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren can use the space for their prayers, for their baptisms, hopefully their weddings,” he said.