The Wrong Roof at the Right Time

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The last half of the 19th century was not kind to the old Spanish missions. Even the former headquarters of the mission chain, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was abandoned. The land was sold, right up to the walls of the church. By 1850 the wooden roof of the abandoned structure had rotted and partially collapsed. The church stood roofless for thirty years until Fr. Angelo Casanova arrived on the scene.

ANGELO CASANOVA was appointed resident pastor of the Catholic Church in Monterey in 1870. He took a special interest in the old mission and periodically held services in the largely undamaged sacristy. This painting, which is in the collection of the California Historical Society, shows him leading a group of Indian worshipers into the sacristy for a baptism.

MISSION CARMEL c. 1928
MISSION CARMEL c. 1928

Fr. Casanova decided to raise money to repair the church in time to honor the centennial of Fr. Junipero Serra’s who died at the mission on August 28, 1784. By the spring of 1884 the church had a new roof. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough money or time to reconstruct the original roof, which was arched (see the stone arch showing in the painting). Instead a sharply pitched roof was put on the church. Even though it saved the precious building from further deterioration, the roof was widely criticized for marring the graceful lines of the original structure.

Fr. Casanova served as pastor of the Monterey church for twenty-three years, until 1893, and continued his efforts to restore San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo to its former glory. However the 'temporary' roof wasn’t replaced for a half a century. Photographs of Mission Carmel in 1920s feature the steeply pitched room.

HARRY DOWNIE (1903-1980)
HARRY DOWNIE (1903-1980)

When the master mission restorer Harry Downie (1903-1980) began his decades-long effort to restore Mission Carmel, replacing the "wrong" roof was his highest priority. Downie, a third generation San Franciscan, was a cabinetmaker with a special reputation for the restoration of Spanish antiques. In 1931 he was recruited by Monsignor Philip Scherer, pastor of the Catholic Church in Monterey, to restore some statues at the Carmel Mission but his job quickly expanded to mission restorer. In addition to the exterior and interior restoration of Mission Carmel, Downie was consulted on and helped restore many of the missions that are today considered the most authentic including San Luis Obispo, San Juan Bautista and San Buenaventura. He also assisted the Native Daughters of the Golden West in the rebuilding of Mission Soledad. Harry and his beloved wife Mabel are buried alongside the church of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, the mission he served so faithfully for 50 years.

While Fr. Casanova’s roof was replaced in mid 1930s, the most prominent statue honoring California was done before the replacement. When Fr. Serra was chosen in 1931 to represent the state of California in the rotunda of the national’s Capital in Washington DC, the statue of him that was created by Ettore Cadorin shows him with a cross in one hand and a minature of the Carmel church in the other…the church with the wrong roof.