I entered the ramshackle building with trepidation as well as a sense of wonder at what I might find within the tumbled-down walls. The building greeted me like a frail old man, unsteady on his feet, battered from centuries of hard labor and neglect, in need of an oxygen tank. Yet in the faded paintings upon adobe walls I also sensed pride in a lifetime of accomplishments.
“So, what do you think Hans? Can you save the structure?” It was my fellow Jesuit Fr. Felix Plattner who had brought me clear across the world to this remote village in Bolivia to “save the structure” as he called it.
“I will need a closer look, Felix, before I can fully assess the structural integrity of the church. There is much work to be done if you wish it fully restored to its 18th century splendor.”
We moved back outside. Waving my hand across the vista I continued, “And, dear friend, what of these outbuildings? Restoration of them as well? So much to be accomplished in six short months.”
“Well, Hans. I’m not the architect. I thought you might be able to get the Native craftsmen started on a restoration plan in six months and then you could return to Switzerland. We can assign local supervisors to oversee the actual work.”
“Felix, leave me alone for awhile. I need time to assess the building and to think.” My head was already throbbing from the noon day heat and there was nothing welcoming about the breeze that carried gritty dust into my eyes.
I turned back to face the church, picking up a small bag of hand tools and brushes that I had purchased when I arrived in La Paz. “Well, it’s time old man. Let’s see if we can resuscitate you.”
As I entered the church doorway, I made the sign of the cross in blessing. Then moving to the center of the building, I sat down cross-legged in the red dirt and closed my eyes. The community still moved about this building, but not within it. It originally was built to serve as the plaza principal in the late 1700s. I heard children at play not far from the mission complex. A braying donkey voiced objection to its work somewhere in the distance. A diesel truck moved down the dirt highway. And, then I heard it. Music. It was sweet voices, flutes, and oboes. Violins and whispers in a strange tongue. I opened my eyes, looking around the adobe walls and then to the altar, and shook my head.
Surely I was dreaming.
The front of the church was filled with small Native children clothed in white like angels from heaven. While I had no understanding of the words they sang, the melody haunted me. I arose and approached them as if in a trance. As I made my way into their midst it was as if I was enveloped in a cloud of witnesses to God’s holy presence. The singing continued. The images whirled and then dissipated like dry ice on a hot day as I reached what was left of the altar. I was suddenly alone again.
It was only then that I noticed a rather odd raised wooden dais covered in rubble right where the children had been singing. It didn’t appear to be part of traditional altar construction. I retrieved my tools and carefully began to sort through the layers of neglect.
Half an hour later I had uncovered the dais and in the process a hidden door within its construction. Broken pieces of pottery and wooden shards littered the earthen floor. The metal hinges on the door were nearly immovable, so corroded with rust.
What lay inside was astounding. Two beautifully crafted violins caught my attention at first, but then scattered underneath were handwritten sheets of music, seemingly hundreds of pages. The paper was brittle and brown. My heart stirred with an inexplicable excitement. What story would these instruments tell? Did the village children sing praises to our Lord from the music crafted here?
Felix appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the noon day sun. “What are you doing Hans?”
Covered in centuries old debris and red earth, a nonsensical grin spread over my face. “I don’t think I will be returning to Switzerland anytime soon. God has other plans for me. And besides, this old man needs my help.”
Hans Roth, former Jesuit and Swiss architect arrived in Bolivia in 1972 to restore the mission church at San Rafael de Velasco. It became his life’s work to restore all seven of the Jesuit mission churches in the Chiquitania area of Bolivia--six of which are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. He was also responsible for the restoration and construction of countless more structures within this area of Bolivia as well as discovering more than 5,000 sheets of 18th century sacred musical scores written by indigenous composers and Italian composer Domenico Zipoli. These musical scores are now performed as part of the Bolivian Baroque and Renaissance Music Festival begun in 1996. He died in 1999, never returning to Switzerland.
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