By Robert Bradley
The church of San Blas, which once defined the eastern limit of the city of Cuenca, has been restored to its rightful prominence and returned to the parishioners of the church.
A nearly total renovation, lasting over 15 months and costing almost $1.3 million was completed last month. The pieces requiring greatest care and reconditioning included exterior and interior repair to the dome, bracing the lateral naves, restoration of the walls, and repairing or replacing marble throughout the church. The massive doors to the church were completely redone. Of particular importance, requiring delicate workmanship, was the restoration and conditioning of the intricate murals adorning the altar.
Father Francisco Calle, “Father Paco,” is now the pastor of one of Cuenca’s crown jewels. However, he was quick to point out, “This work depended on the parishioners from the earliest stages of planning, to the completion of this extraordinary undertaking. They gave generously of their time and money and worked long hours in collaboration with the municipal government to see this project to its conclusion. This is not just another church; this is a monument to all who came before and a legacy for the future. It is an icon of Cuenca.”
Several significant discoveries were made during the reconstruction of the church. Paintings dating over 100 years of age were found, still in remarkably good condition considering their age neglect. Another surprise was the discovery of old murals covered over with paint, without the benefit of any record.
Of particular interest was the discovery of the cornerstone dated 1557, indicating that construction of the church began the same year as Cuenca’s Old Cathedral, considered the oldest European structure in the city. Officially, municipal records date the completion of San Blas to 1793.
Perhaps the most mysterious discovery of the reconstruction project is a three-level mausoleum heretofore unknown and unrecorded. A detailed historical study is being undertaken to identify who might have been put to rest here.
Pablo Barzallo, Municipal Director of Historic Areas, reported that San Blas is one of many churches the city scheduled for renovation; next up for overhauls are Iglesias San Franciso and Santo Domingo, he says. He stressed that renovation of significant, historical churches in the city, although not the responsibility of the town per se, is rather the city’s commitment to historic preservation.
Barzallo continued: “Our churches reflect the history of Cuenca in profound ways. Our goal is to preserve this history and the stories that they tell.”
The Church of San Blas anchors the eastern edge of the historic district, on Calle Simon Bolivar. San Sebastian Church anchors the west. The old and new cathedrals, of course, serve as the axis.
Photos by Robert Bradley