Times Past

Iconic artwork at Mission San Luis Obispo in need of restoration. Here’s how to help

Nageh Bichay cleaning a Station of the Cross painting.
Nageh Bichay cleaning a Station of the Cross painting.

Father José Caveller must be one of the most patient and dedicated people Central Coast history.

With the aid of local Native Americans, he directed the construction of the first buildings in San Luis Obispo with scant resources. Junípero Serra founded Mission San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 1772 but departed for San Diego the next morning. Caveller was left with five soldiers, two Native Americans from Baja California, “50 pounds of flour, less than a bushel of wheat for sowing, a quantity of chocolate, and a box of brown sugar for which later they might obtain wild seeds from the Native Americans.”

Serra wrote that in founding the mission in such impoverished circumstances, he “had trusted in the providence of God alone.”

It was an inauspicious beginning for 32-year-old Caveller. The recipient of his first baptism, a young child, died within hours, causing the local Native American community to fear being involved with the sacrament.

His first church, at the confluence of San Luis and Brizzolara creeks, was destroyed by severe flooding in early 1773.

Marauding Native Americans burned his second church along what is now Dana Street on Nov. 29, 1776. He built a church at its present site at Palm and Monterey. A Baja California Native American’s careless use of a firearm to celebrate Christmas in 1781 set a fire that was extinguished while the whole community was in the church. A third fire of unknown origins destroyed that structure in November 1782.

Once again, time to rebuild.

Caveller only left his post seven times, visiting Missions Purisima and San Antonio and once visiting at Serra at Carmel in 1777. Caveller died at 49 in 1789. He was buried at the foot of the altar by Father Miguel Pieras. His church wasn’t completed until 1793.

Caveller was from a middle-class family in Tarragona, Spain, a city rich in the art and culture of the ancient Mediterranean. His religious formation involved the richly artistic spectacles of the Spanish Counter Reformation. He deeply felt the absence of art in this lonely outpost of the Spanish Empire.

The altar and walls of his church were painted by Native American converts employing the same pigments used in their rock paintings. Caveller treasured the painting of “St. John the Baptist and Christ” by José de Paez, which Serra commissioned in Mexico City in 1775.

The California Missions Foundation funded its restoration along with de Paez’s painting of our patron saint. Both were displayed at the Huntington Library’s Junípero Serra Tercentennial Exhibit in 2013.

What Caveller treasured most were our mission’s 14 Stations of the Cross, probably painted during the late 17th or early 18th centuries. They are arguably the oldest station paintings in California. Until the 1970s, they were illuminated by candles in wrought iron holders directly below each station.

The paraffin candles coated each painting with a damaging film. Today, just the breath of the thousands of visitors and worshipers furthers the deterioration.

The stations are at once a religious and a civic treasure. They have been a part of our community since almost the beginning. They need cleaning and conservation in sealed, nitrogen-filled cases that will still allow full viewing.

Fortunately, we have Nageh Bichay, who restored our 18th Century triptych of St. Louis the Bishop. Bichay comes from Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. He helped restore some of the very ancient Coptic Church sites associated with the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, which are told in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Bichay brings just the skills needed to conserve our stations for the next 200 plus years.

The mission has applied to the California Missions Foundation for assistance in funding Bichay’s work, but we need to raise funds locally. You can help and have a wonderful evening by attending La Mesa de los Padres, “A Taste of the Past: An Evening in the Gardens” with music, dancing and fine wines and food from 6 to 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26. Tickets are $75 and available by reservation only at the mission office, 805-781-8220.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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