Saturday, June 28, 2003

Time takes its toll on California missions

The earth trembles as trains and trucks rumble through town. The adobe walls at the town's first settlement, the two-century-old Mission San Miguel Arcangel, are crumbling. Cracks in the stucco are widening. Paint from fading frescoes is flaking off.

Up and down the California coast, most of the state's 21 missions are under attack by termites, wood beetles, and the elements. Last fall, a beam crashed down on a statue of Jesus at the San Gabriel Mission, one of the state's oldest. At Mission Dolores in San Francisco, insects are boring through the ornately decorated altar and its statuaries. At most missions, leaky roofs threaten to make mud out of earthen bricks.

For decades, the missions, stretching from San Diego to the Sonoma vineyards, have struggled to raise the money to make repairs and save historical artifacts. Government funds aren't materializing, and the fledgling California Missions Foundation, begun five years ago to benefit the missions, has barely made a dent in its $50 million fund-raising goal.

''It is urgent. Nothing major has been done on these missions for a long time,'' said Richard Ameil, the foundation's founder and president. ''In Europe, they have all of these wonderful old buildings and churches. In this country, we tear them down.''

Last fall, the foundation asked Congress to set up a $10 million grant program. The legislation, cosponsored by 49 of the state's 53-member House delegation, is yet to make it on the agenda.

The foundation has also been expecting its share of funds from last year's Proposition 40, a $2.6 billion parks and conservation bond measure that included $267 million for historic preservation. None of the $91 million appropriated so far has gone to California missions, and it is unclear when and where the rest of the money will be distributed because of the state's budget crisis, Ameil said.

I have read several stories about the crisis regarding the state of the California missions, and I am always puzzled by the apparent absence of any concerted effort by the Church in California to preserve these missions. Perhaps it's there, perhaps I'm missing it. Or perhaps I'm not.