Forgotten mission history resurfaces

When Father Vincent Lloyd Russell looked upon the paintings depicting Jesus’ suffering and death, he didn’t like what he saw.

They were a mess. Dirty from generations of neglect, colors faded, canvases torn. Certainly nothing befitting the chapel where Father Junipero Serra had celebrated Mass at Mission San Juan Capistrano nearly two centuries earlier.

It was the early 1970s, and Russell reached out to a man who played the church organ on Sundays. William Maldonado was also a gifted, self-taught artist who could copy virtually anything.


Russell enlisted Maldonado to spruce up the 12 paintings that make up the Stations of the Cross. The first 11 were no problem -- they are modest-sized works lining the walls of Serra Chapel.

No. 12 was another story.

Nearly 12 feet tall and 6 1/2 feet wide, “The Crucifixion,” painted in 1800 by a Spanish colonial artist named Jose Francisco Zervas, was in such terrible shape that Russell decided that rather than try to restore it, he would simply cover it up with a reproduction by his talented church organist.

“You could hardly make out the scene,” said Maldonado, now 83. “It was a big blob of mixed-up dark colors.”

“The Lord will guide you,” Russell told him.

“I was, like, ‘Oh, come on, give me a break,” said Maldonado, a retired restaurateur who lives in Pasadena. “But I guess it worked. The divine spirit of the upstairs man had me come up with the colors.”

After Maldonado worked off and on for a year in a rented warehouse, his copy was placed over the original without fanfare. No records were kept. Memories faded. Parishioners died, and new priests came and went.

Entombed behind its impostor, the painting from the mission’s early years effectively disappeared.

“The community lost its collective memory of it,” said Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the mission’s current executive director.

When the Serra Chapel underwent a major restoration a few years ago, the Stations of the Cross underwent a restoration.

Again, No. 12 was another story. It clearly was a modern painting. But upon close examination, one could see that it stuck out from its frame a quarter-inch.

“I wondered, ‘What’s underneath that?’ ” Lawrence Adams said.

To find out, she was told, would cost $18,000 -- money the mission didn’t have. But recently, a benefactor stepped forward and offered to foot the bill to resolve the mystery.

Last month, as several dozen people looked on, an art conservator hired by the mission carefully removed nine narrow nails and slowly removed Maldonado’s piece from 1973, revealing the 213-year-old painting.

“It felt like the painting was being resurrected,” Lawrence Adams said. “This site continues to reveal itself to us.”

Unseen for 40 years, the work is indeed a mess. Its canvas is saggy, pockmarked, torn and tarnished. Up close, it’s hard to make out most images.

That it survived at all is a bit of a miracle.

In the mission’s 237-year history, plenty of stuff -- artwork, priceless artifacts, wall murals, even original roof tiles -- disappeared through theft, neglect or poor record-keeping.

When Father St. John O’Sullivan arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910, the abandoned mission was falling apart. O’Sullivan spent more than two decades rebuilding and trying to recover missing silver, bronze candlesticks, religious statues -- even some of those roof tiles.

A woman named Dona Magdalena Murillio, who was born on an area rancho in the mid-19th century, had “The Crucifixion” in her adobe home. According to “California Missions and Their Romances,” published in 1938, Murillio had “rescued” the painting from the dilapidated chapel where it had hung, unframed, exposed to rain.

Decades later, when Maldonado’s reproduction went up over the original, few parishioners noticed, he said.

“Those who did said, ‘Well, it’s about time they cleaned that painting,’ ” Maldonado said. “I thought that was a compliment.”

It will take time -- and tens of thousands of dollars that the mission intends to raise -- to restore the original 1800 painting.

But Maldonado’s piece isn’t leaving the mission. It will be hung someplace else.

“It’s a part of the mission’s history too,” Lawrence Adams said.