Ten years after a $1.8-million restoration, the 400-plus-year-old retablo, along with other treasures, gets a makeover

By Greg Hardesty     11/26/2018

Earlier this year, Mechelle Lawrence Adams stepped into Serra Chapel and noticed that things looked slightly amiss. 

On most days, the executive director of Mission San Juan Capistrano gets around the property a lot. 

Nothing escapes her attention, whether it’s a plastic straw covering from a juice container errantly left behind by a pupil on a field trip, or display signs that get bumped by visitors and need to be straightened. 

On this day in March, Lawrence Adams took a close look at the walls, the paintings of the Stations of the Cross, the pulpit, and, of course, the 400-plus-year-old retablo, the centerpiece of the altar in one of the state’s most historically significant chapels. 

The golden retablo piece, installed during Serra Chapel’s first restoration around 1910, is 18-feet wide and 22 ½-feet long. Artisans in Argentina constructed the baroque piece from hand-carved wood with a gold leaf. 

Lawrence Adams noticed the retablo’s normal glorious luster had become somewhat dulled. 

So, too, had the pulpit and the paintings of the Stations of the Cross. 

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Boy, they don’t look the same to me anymore,” she said. “Things just didn’t look as vivid as they did before Christmas.” 

So Lawrence Adams sprung into action, contacting the team that worked on the 2005-2008 restoration. They came out and did a careful walk-through of Serra Chapel, taking close-up pictures. 

“They determined that everything was holding up pretty well, but that there was a lot of grime and dirt and some degradation on the finishes on the walls,” Lawrence Adams said. 

The team proposed a cleanup. 

“They were excited to get started,” Lawrence Adams said. 

She then tapped $110,000 in private donations to gussy up the tarnished elements in Serra Chapel. 

Beginning on Sept. 9, after the busy mission activities of summer had ended, workers toiled from the ending of the daily 7 a.m. Mass at Serra Chapel until closing time at 5 p.m., using tiny sponges to meticulously clean the retablo, pulpit, and the Stations of the Cross paintings. 

They used water and, in some areas,
a solvent solution, to bring the sheen back to the marvelous works of art in the chapel. 

“We went through bags and bags of these tiny sponges,” Lawrence Adams said. “The items were cleaned; we didn’t add any changes. It was a very delicate process.” 

Dubbed “The Decade Project,” the deep cleansing of these key elements within Serra Chapel – think of them as undergoing a facial and full-body exfoliation — was completed Oct. 23. 

Regulars of Serra Chapel were impressed, including Art Birtcher, a longtime patron of Mission San Juan Capistrano. 

“He was happy with it,” Lawrence Adams said. “He loves the chapel and appreciated the effort that went into
(the deep cleaning). He could see the difference.” 

Indeed, based on a recent walk through of Serra Chapel, with the distinct smell of incense in the air, the reds and blues in the Stations of the Cross paintings gave off a distinct pop, as did the gold frames. 

The pulpit and retablo, which features the faces of 52 angels, also had a majestic sheen. 

Lawrence Adams called the project a fine example of “preventable preservation,” work that is done not for major repairs, but to keep things looking nice before items deteriorate to the point that major work becomes necessary. 

Lawrence Adams noted that the doors to Serra Chapel are open during the day. 

A hotel is being built directly across from the chapel. Construction has kicked up more dust than normal over the past several months. 

The open Serra Chapel also is especially vulnerable to such grime-inducing events as the punishing Santa Ana winds, Lawrence Adams said. 

“There are also oils in the air and other things that attach (to paintings and other items), and also the moisture in the air causes (dirt) to build up,” she said. 

Lawrence Adams takes special pride in ensuring that the grounds of Mission San Juan Capistrano, including the interior of Serra Chapel, remain as pristine as possible. Every year, some 333,000 people visit the landmark in south Orange County. 

“We like to be proactive,” she said. “This project reflects the mindset of our foundation as stewards, and myself and my team. The world expects us to take good care of Serra Chapel and the mission grounds, and I believe this project reflects the forward thinking of our team in conservation, as well as creating inspiration and a sense of connection to the community.” 

Lawrence Adams noted that the private donations that paid for “The Decade Project” come from a restricted fund that accumulates over the years, thanks to the generosity of the Serra Chapel’s numerous supporters. 

“People really care about the Serra Chapel,” she said.