The construction worker stood on tiptoe and tried to place a crown of thorns on a statue of Jesus while architect Jorge Rigau fired a burst of directions from under the ladder.
“Hold it like this and move it around a bit,” he said, gesturing with his fingers. “Move it to the right, but don’t lower it.”
It was one of the final touches to a detailed restoration of the second oldest surviving Spanish church in the Americas, whose construction had begun in 1532 on land donated by the famous explorer Juan Ponce de León and whose base was erected on an indigenous settlement.
The church was built for a Dominican convent where the renowned Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas lived, served as a refuge during an attack by the Taino Indians, became the first high school in Puerto Rico and was damaged by a cannonball during the Spanish-American War of 1898 in which Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States
But the Iglesia de San José, outdated only by the Spanish cathedral in neighboring Dominican Republic, was closed in 1996 due to serious deterioration. St. John’s Cathedral itself dates from 1521, but the original wooden building was destroyed and the current structure dates from 1540.
The $ 11 million restoration It became a personal project of businessman Ricardo González that took almost two decades to complete. Many thought it would fail due to funding problems, the lack of an original plan to provide guidance, and widespread deterioration including termites, pigeon droppings, and tree roots that had pierced the church’s Gothic-style nave, whose ribbed vault it was once described as “a great achievement rarely seen outside of Europe”.
González, who is an active member of the Catholic Church, volunteered to help oversee its rebuilding in the early 2000s with the permission of Archbishop Roberto González, the Archbishop of San Juan. He calculated that it would take a year to complete.
But as workers investigated with radar and laser technology and physically removed layers from the church, they discovered centuries-old murals and architectural techniques once used by the Romans. Ricardo González realized that he was facing a long and deep restoration process.
“When we started with that, there was no going back,” he said.
In 2009, he founded the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, Inc. to raise more funds for the project. Donations ranged from a couple of quarters to large amounts given by businesses, nonprofits and wealthy Puerto Ricans.
Actor Benicio del Toro joined the requests for donations as the building was added to the 11 Most Threatened Historic Sites listed by the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation.
For years, tourists and locals had given up on being able to visit the site once again.
On a recent visit to the church, González’s eyes filled with tears.
“Every day I walk there and I get excited,” he said as he stood on the roof and pointed at the building. “I’ve seen the movie, you know?”
It began, he said, with experts from the National Park Service showing construction workers how to use lime according to the church’s original workmanship. The workers then had to remove the concrete covering the walls of the nearly 17,000-square-foot church little by little, in small sections to avoid damaging what might be underneath.
Later, experts from abroad were hired to restore murals and other works of art, including armed mermaids painted in the corners of a chapel.
Renovation was halted only three times in nearly 20 years: briefly after Hurricane Maria in 2017, during the close of last year’s pandemic, and in 2008, when the lime supplier was temporarily out of material.
Rather than face that problem again, González decided that the workers, many of them from the Dominican Republic, would learn how to make their own lime, a lengthy process that requires aging the mixture. Instead of the horsehair that was once used to help tie the material together, González opted for fiberglass strips.
They rejected the easier but less authentic concrete used during a previous restoration.
“The cement does not allow the walls to breathe,” he said, noting that the humidity played a role in the deterioration of the church, which was built near the ocean on an indigenous settlement at the highest point of the historic district of San Juan, known as Old San Juan.
The church and its walls have long survived over the centuries, said Archbishop González, who is not related to the businessman.
“It’s wonderful,” he said as he scanned the church as he sat on one of the benches that will be used for the masses after the inauguration on March 19.
The restorers intentionally exposed the church’s history in some areas: centuries-old clay-colored walls and columns, as well as faded murals and a niche that once served as an original confessional. A slightly raised line within the entrance of the church outlines the shape of the original ceiling. Restorers framed the area where the cannonball hit during 1898.
“We let the church speak to them,” Rigau said, adding that visitors “will find witnesses, ghosts, memories, scars.”
But at least one mystery remains. All the figures depicted on the church’s golden altar have been identified except for one: a blonde-haired woman in the upper left corner holding a palm leaf, indicating that she was a martyr, but offers no other clues.