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After many decades of decline, some hope that protection for Cocospera Mission could be on horizon

With a series of creaks, archaeologist Jupiter Martinez opened the makeshift door at the entrance of the Misión de Nuestra Señora del Pilar y Santiago de Cocóspera.

The low-hanging midday December sun was pouring into the now roofless, centuries-old structure, which time has not been gentle to: a split wood beam hangs low near the entrance, and the walls - an incongruous mix of adobe and brick - are mostly exposed and actively eroding. The original floor is five or so feet below, buried under decades of accumulated dirt and rubble.

“It’s a very badly made temple,” said Martinez, a researcher with Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute, or INAH, who has spent more than two decades working to halt the temple’s active collapse.

But its strange, unwieldy construction is the fruit of its origin as a Jesuit mission — reportedly dedicated by Father Eusebio Kino himself in January 1704 — and subsequent takeover by Franciscans after their predecessors were expelled by the Spanish crown.

That intermingling of different materials and designs is part of what makes Cocospera — just 30 miles south of what became the Arizona-Sonora border — so unique among the mission chain it's part of, according to Martinez.

‘Half an angel’

The vibrant paintings that adorned the church’s walls also set it apart, and Martinez has a sharp eye for the handful of subtle brush strokes that remain. Above the main altar, he pointed out a hand, arms and wings.

“That’s the most significant evidence that remains in the whole temple,” he said. “After having been the most painted church in all of the Pimería Alta, all that’s left to us is half an angel.”

Much clearer are the many signs of looting, which — along with decades of regular Apache raids, harsh weather, long stretches of abandonment and even an earthquake in the late 19th century — has been one of the principal threats to the building.

Compelled by fevered dreams of buried Jesuit gold that Martinez said never existed, desperate looters have dug deep holes and tunnels over the years, compromising the structure.

“The building itself is the treasure,” he said. “And it’s what’s being destroyed.”

No time to wait

But some are hopeful that its steady decline could soon be halted.

“There have been innumerable efforts of all kinds,” said Renata Schneider, a restoration specialist with INAH who has worked with Martinez on Cocospera since the late 90s.

While often well-intentioned, the many previous attempts to preserve the structure have largely been unsuccessful. She and Martinez both cited the unsightly scaffolding in front of the building, which was intended to prop up the Franciscan brick facade, but actually does little more than obstruct the view.

The plan now is to put a roof over the crumbling structure, to protect it from the elements. Schneider readily concedes that it too isn’t the most aesthetic.

“What we can’t do is continue waiting for the ideal design and remain uncovered,” she said. “The deterioration in that sort of climate, and with that kind of material out in the elements, is exponential.”

She’s watched it happen in real time since the late ’90s.

For Schneider, this is the most promising effort to date, in no small part because there is a growing societal push for the mission’s preservation. She’s hopeful that the needed funds can come together — from sources ranging from local governments to private businesses — to finally make it happen.

Martinez said official estimates for the roof project are around $400,000. He’s excited about the restoration work having a roof will enable, but asked if he feels that this will be the effort that finally protects the mission, he said he’ll have a certain level of skepticism until he sees the roof going up.

Fragile remains

Some preparations are already underway.

A team led by James Watson, a University of Arizona professor and curator at the Arizona State Museum, was hard at work in a pit on the building’s west side.

“These burials, even though they're not as old as some of the others that we've excavated, they’re incredibly fragile,” he said. “And so our expertise in bioarchaeology, which is human remains in archaeological contexts, is really helpful in being able to document these remains before they’re removed or destroyed by the process of putting up the roof.”

The team of three was carefully wrapping the complete bones and fragments in tissue paper and bagging them. They’ll undergo further study at an INAH facility in Hermosillo.

“Being able to do what we can to reconstruct who these members of the community were, and sort of give that personal touch and feeling to, not just the church, but the community that belonged to the church, to me that's the most meaningful and important part of our contribution to the project,” Watson added.

‘Made of diversity’

Much work — and uncertainty — remains. But in the prospect of a preserved and then rehabilitated mission, Martinez sees an important reference point for Sonorans, and visitors from beyond, on the hard, complicated life of centuries past and the roots of the region’s people today.

The church and surrounding community were home to Indigenous Pimas, Yaquis and Opatas, as well as mestizos and European and North American migrants, what Martinez described as the “amalgam” that underpins Sonoran identity.

“We come from diversity,” he said. “We’re made of it.”

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Murphy Woodhouse was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.