San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

La Merced Restoration Nearly Complete

Our grandparents constructed it,” read the small, unobtrusive acrylic plaques affixed to the 111 pews at San José’s La Merced Church.

“We restored it,” the wording continues. “Future generations will preserve it.”

Less than a year remains until the completion of the restoration of one of the capital’s landmark city-center churches, and four years into the project – La Merced has remained open continually as a functioning parish church during all this time – decades of damage and neglect are being swept, scraped, cleaned and brushed away.

Though the project began in earnest four years ago, La Merced (Calle 12, between Avenidas 2 and 4), fronting the east side of the pleasant, block-square park of the same name, suffered significant structural impairment in the 1991 earthquake that also damaged the National Theater and Metropolitan Cathedral a few blocks away.

Engineering studies began in 1993 to design interior support columns to reinforce the building’s structure.

That more functional task accomplished, interior and exterior design were next on the wish list. That project has been tackled by Nelson Araya and a team of seven from the San José firm Restauraciones Vasari.

The work is nearly complete, and Araya’s stated goal to “conserve the maximum that is possible” seems well on its way to being accomplished.

The earthquake took its toll, but for Araya, the biggest enemy was the paint. “They painted everything,” he says, recounting the painstaking removal of three coats of white oil-based paint from the interior walls.

Glossy paint was all the rage for much of the 20th century, Araya says, with coat after coat likely being the cheapest method of maintaining a building’s appearance. It still is, he adds.

The building’s exterior suffered the same fate, covered by slick tan paint with the cedar doors colored fire-engine red.

“Children’s colors,” Araya says, shaking his head.

So, paint, be gone. A lime-marble-sand stucco was applied, giving the entire building a soft ivory color, and a faux gold-leaf finish accents the interior. The original wood finish once again highlights the carved detail of the doors. A technique known as Venetian stucco has been used on the church’s entryway, giving the appearance (and cold-to-the-touch feel) of marble.

Old photographs and a lot of good old-fashioned scraping revealed the Arabesque style stenciling designs on the interior walls, of the type popular in churches in Florence, Italy. (Araya studied restoration in Florence upon completing his degree at the University of Costa Rica.)

“A lot of patience is involved,” Araya says. “You can’t just run with this type of work.”

The earthquake damaged several of the stained-glass windows, each containing 15 panels, which were removed one at a time, inspected and replaced when necessary. Ten windows once again gleam in the area behind the Italian marble altar, depicting eight saints along with the legend of the encounter of King James I of Aragon with the Virgin of La Merced.

Restoring the church to its century-old glory was the goal, but a few concessions to modernity were implemented.

The still-functioning clock required little more than cleaning, but a motor has been installed to eliminate the need to climb the tower once a week for winding. The same goes for the six French bells, dating from about 1900, which will no longer need to be rung manually by cord from the tower.

Termites have taken their toll on the wooden pipes of the 1920s Spanish organ. The resulting escape of air has wreaked havoc with the sound. That repair will be assigned to an expert from Spain, Araya says.

Yet to be completed are the reinstallation of the 14 Stations of the Cross and outfitting of the church with a new electrical and illumination system. Landscaping will be undertaken by the Municipality of San José.

The structure, built between 1894 and 1907, is San José’s second church to bear the name “La Merced.” The first, which dated from 1819, stood on Avenida Central where the present-day Central Bank now stands and defined the capital’s Merced district, one of the historic divisions of the 19th-century city.

An earthquake destroyed the first La Merced in 1888. The present church at its relocated site technically lies outside the Merced neighborhood in the more utilitariannamedHospital district.

You Can Help, Too

Donors large and small are welcome to contribute to the ¢400 million ($770,000 at current exchange rates) restoration of La Merced Church, which is scheduled for completion in July 2007. The parishaffiliated Amigos de la Merced (Friends of La Merced) has positioned donation boxes in the church sanctuary. Call 222-3586 for more information.

Funding has been accomplished largely through Costa Rica’s Law of Authorization of Donation to the Restoration of the Metropolitan Cathedral and Other Catholic Churches, says Jeffrey Porras, administrative assistant for the project. Law 7266, to use the legislation’s more frequently used shorthand, in effect since 1991, permits a corporation to make a taxdeductible donation one time (and one time only) during its lifespan to the renovation of a Costa Rican Catholic church. (Personal donations are not taxdeductible.)

The brewery Cervecería Costa Rica and Atlas Electric are two of the project’s largest donors, thanks to the law, and Porras says the La Merced restoration would not exist were it not for 7266. A bill to rescind the law is presently in committee in the Legislative Assembly.


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