Bunny Fontana – The Heart of San Xavier’s Restoration

It may be that one insight led Bernard “Bunny” Fontana to a fruitful and singular career.  “I realized the someone doing anthropology could do it here, that it wasn’t necessary to go to Africa or to Asia or to Polynesia or to the Swiss Alps or some place, that anthropology is all around us,” he says.  As a result, Bunny’s life work became first cultural anthropology in the Southwest, and then left a legacy as a historian and author, and a founder and director of Patronato San Xavier.

Bunny’s personal attraction to the Mission seemed predestined.  In 1955, He and his wife Hazel were looking for a place to live while he pursued his doctoral degree at the UA.  They found a cheap place for rent on Mission Road, just off the reservation (a place they later bought).  Practicing catholics, they learned that the only church nearby was San Xavier, and so the historic mission became their regular church.

Bunny’s doctoral thesis became a study of the San Xavier community.  “I got interested, of course, in the history of the place and how it had come to be,” he said.  “And there was no way you could exclude the Mission from the history of what went on in the community.”

A scholarly debate continues whether contemporary O’odham are related to or descended from the Hohokam.  The ancient people occupied parts of Arizona from about AD 1 through the middle of the 15th century when the culture suddenly collapsed.  As part of his doctoral work in 1950s, Bunny knew that the only stratified site at Ventana Cave pointed to a gap between the prehistoric Hohokam and the historic O’odham who had later moved into the area.

In order to prove or disprove the historical relationship, one would need to identify an O’odham settlement that may be sitting on top of Hohokam remains.  “And looking around we thought, well what do you know, the Mission itself is actually built on a hill,” he said.  “And we thought well you know that’s a possibility.  We know there’s O’odham stuff on top and we don’t know what’s under it.  Let’s dig it up and find out.”

So he and another graduate student Bill Robinson got permission and began digging near the Mission.  Volunteers from the Arizona State Museum and students from the UA helped out.  After excavating an area, they discovered foundations of walls that were not prehistoric.  “What we had actually dug up was all that was left of the footings of the first church at San Xavier.  But it took many years to figure that out.”

Proof came from a letter a priest had written in 1800 that described the room of  original church. “Simultaneously when you are digging historic sites, you are not only doing archaeology but you’re spending as much time as possible in archives reading all you can to try to put the two together.  And so that’s what happened, piece by piece, bit by bit, we kept digging up more data and information.”

“That’s how it all kind of came to pass.  I ended up being interested in the history; I ended up being interested in the archaeology.  Of course for many, many years, I had a fairly significant involvement with the people who live here in the community.

“Seed” money from the Pew family led to the creation of Patronato.   Fr. Kieran McCarty, the San Xavier parish priest at the time, Jim Murphy, the diocesan attorney, Jane Ivancovich, and Bunny had discussions about what to do with it.  It was Murphy’s idea to create a a non-profit, non-sectarian corporation whose sole purpose would be to take care of the historic physical property.  In 1978, Murphy, Ivancovich, Fontana and Dianne Bret Harte, Watson Smith and Emil Haury became the original six founders.  Each brought a special interest and expertise to the organization.

“It was a long time before we got around to doing very much,” Bunny said.  “We thought, well, before we try to raise any money, and need to do anything, we need some sort of assessment.  And our concern initially was not the exterior, but the interior.”

“And so we hired Gloria Giffords, an art conservator, and historian Miguel Celorio who was teaching at the University of the Americas in Puebla, in Mexico.  They went over virtually every inch of the interior, and they ended up writing up a report that pretty much detailed everything that was wrong.”  Before anyone could work on those problems, plaster was found, falling off the wall in the sanctuary.

“So we thought, boy, there’s no sense in spending any kind of money doing anything on the interior, until we address the water problems on the outside.”  Morales Restoration & Builders spent five years working on the drainage and leaks -just to stop the damage.

Bunny had met Paul Schwartzbaum when the then head of conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was working at the National Historic Park at Tumacacori.   He had followed Schwartzbaum’s career.  In 1992, when the Patronato was ready to begin work in the interior, the board agreed to have Bunny ask him if he could assemble a team to do the work. The team worked in six campaigns over five years.

“Those were exciting times, because there were weeks, if not months, where we didn’t know if we had the money to meet payroll.  But somehow God always provided.  Somebody did.  And we were able to pay things off.”

Since that time, the Patronato has continued the work, restoring major portions of the exterior, conserving the Baptistery in the church and now beginning a new campaign to restore the East Tower.

It’s hard to imagine Mission San Xavier – without thinking of the contributions of Bunny Fontana – who has done so much to research, explain and then to help guide the restoration of this National Historic Landmark, his beloved church.

An Abbreviated Bibliography, San Xavier-related:

“A Gift of Angels : The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac” by Bernard L. Fontana & Edward McCain; University of Arizona Press, 2010

“Biography of a Desert Church: The Story of Mission San Xavier del Bac” by Bernard L. Fontana; The Smoke Signal #3, Corral of the Westerners, 1996

“Entrada: The Legacy of Spain and Mexico in the United States” by Bernard L Fontana Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1994

“Trailing the Holy Cross : Soldiers’ Feet, Apache Ears, and the Santa Cruz Valley” by Bernard L. Fontana, Peccary Press, 1991