Jose Burruel was 8 during the Great Depression when he watched workers stack 50-pound handmade adobe bricks and put up the thick walls for the first Catholic church in the small town of Scottsdale.
Up went the church that served mostly Mexican and Yaqui Indian families. After World War II, the mission began to flourish, Scottsdale began growing, and the mission became a parish in 1949. But builders failed to foresee how quickly and how big Scottsdale would grow.
A church seating only 150 was doomed to fail, and Masses in the Old Adobe Mission were ended there exactly 50 years ago. The parish moved to the new Our Lady of Perpetual Help campus in 1956 — a half-mile away on Main Street and Miller Road. Now 81, Burruel beams that the church, which had fallen into disrepair, still stands. The historic landmark at 3821 N. Brown Ave. is being preserved as a downtown retreat for serenity, prayer and contemplation. It is Scottsdale’s oldest standing church building,
The 1,400-square-foot adobe building later was used by the parish for religious education, as a meeting place for the Knights of the Columbus and church teens and, for 23 years, as the rehearsal hall for the Scottsdale Symphony.
Then in 2000, a restoration committee formed in the parish. “We Catholics are going to have to take that church back,” Burruel remembers telling others. Drawing support from many with family roots in the mission church, the committee launched a $450,000 project laid out in four phases. The diocese-owned property could easily have been sold to a developer, and the old mission razed, Burruel said.
“There was a lot of indecision for a while,” he said. “There was the awareness that this was a relic.” Soon city staff and citizens interested in historic preservation joined the cause. “They just started coming out of the woodwork and raising awareness about that little church, and it just created a groundswell.”
Since 2003, the walls and bell tower of the Spanish colonial revival-style church were stabilized and interior and exterior replastering and painting were accomplished, said Sister Alice Ruane of the Sisters of Charity, who has coordinated the restoration. That work, partly financed by an Arizona Preservation Foundation grant, allowed the church to be reopened Dec. 3 for drop-in visitors. Tours are given seven days a week by her cadre of 30 volunteers. Visitors who have signed in have filled more than 120 pages of a notebook.
Original windows had been removed and air-conditioning units were installed to make conditions right for the symphony’s long use of the building, but recent restoration has had to undo much of that work.
For the second time, long-missing original features of the church have been found.
Two years ago, a mystery was solved when four original stained-glass windows removed 23 years before were found to be in a back room of a Phoenix glass shop where symphony officials had sent them to be restored. But because the shop owner was never paid for any restoration, the windows, created by Bernabe Herrera, remained there — only to be found when the church restoration committee inquired about getting other windows done.
Recently 27 original handcarved pews were discovered locked up in Santa Rosa Chapel Mission in Phoenix, which was closed eight years ago. “We are going to get the original pews back,” Ruane said. A woman who had grown up in the 1930s in the church found out that her brother had helped to move the pews out in 1956 and transported them to the Santa Rosa chapel.
Plans call for putting only a fraction of those pews back into the Old Adobe Mission in order to provide ample space for events in the building. So far, there has been an interfaith Thanksgiving service and two quinceanearas, or parties for girls turning 15, and weddings will also be scheduled there.
“Once restored, the Old Adobe Mission will again be a still point in a turning world,” says the project’s promotional brochure. It is also billed as “an example of Scottsdale’s earlier architecture,” “an intimate gathering place for the greater Scottsdale community to celebrate the arts” and “a beautiful site to celebrate and honor special occasions, weddings, reunions, retreats and rites of passage.”
Meanwhile, the restoration committee is earnest in its fundraising, which includes the sale of church history, candles, note packets and even original remnants of the church’s adobe ( www.olphaz.com/ old_adobe_mission.htm).
More artifacts and historical furnishings are also being sought. “We are trying to find out what the stations of the cross looked like,” Ruane said. “They had to have had them. We intend to replace them, but up to this point, we haven’t found anybody that can even remember them.”
The mission still has the original confession booth. Steep wood steps lead to a balcony added later. One curious possession is a 3-by-4-foot mosaic authenticated to have been made by Clare Boothe Luce, the late U.S. ambassador to Brazil, congresswoman, playwright and widow of magazine publisher Henry Luce. The Luces had a vacation home in the Valley, and Clare had converted to Catholicism in 1946.
“In the late 1950s, she was here in the Valley for three years where she was doing artwork, drawing and doing mosaics,” Ruane said, noting that she donated her Our Lady of Guadalupe mosaic to the parish.
A central part of the church’s history was the annual Miracle of the Rose celebrations, which included a parade. A 7-foot-tall painting on cloth of Our Lady, carried annually in the processions, was found in the mission. Parish women put on bazaars regularly to raise money for the mission, Burruel said.
Eventually a wood shingle roof will replace the corrugated tin roof, and deteriorated office space in an annex behind the altar area will be removed. Also planned are electrical wiring replacement, new restrooms, insulation in the ceiling, permanent flooring and landscaping.