“It’s the obligation of us all to preserve and transmit our religious heritage”

Monsignor José Mazuelos, Bishop of Asidonia-Jerez, talks about Church of Santiago el Real in Jerez

Last summer the doors of the Church of Santiago el Real in Jerez de la Frontera were once again opened to the public. This gem of Gothic architecture had been closed to the public for a number of years due to risk of collapse, and was brought back to life thanks to a novel restoration technique. Transforma has spoken to one of those most closely involved in this project, Monsignor José Mazuelos, Bishop of Asidonia-Jerez, who wanted to explain what the reopening of this temple has meant both for the diocese and the residents of Jerez. He emphasised the importance of conserving buildings such as this, without which neither the history nor the character of the populations in which they were erected can be understood.

TRANSFORMA: You were consecrated Bishop of Asidonia-Jerez in 2009. At the time, the church of Santiago had already been closed to worship for 4 years due to risk of collapse. Were you aware of the temple’s situation before assuming your new responsibilities? How did you find out about the state it was in?

JOSÉ MAZUELOS: No, I wasn’t aware. I only knew that the Junta de Andalucía [Andalusian regional government] was in the first phase of repairing the church’s foundations to prevent it from falling down. And that it also intended to carry out a number of additional actions until it was restored in full.

TF: With its closure the church’s condition worsened yet further due to acts of vandalism and constant theft. What did the temple’s closure entail for the community and when and why was the decision taken to intervene?

JM: Those responsible for the church’s restoration filed for suspension of payments without previously informing the diocese. This resulted in the paralysis of the restoration work and the start of a series of acts of vandalism including the theft of figures from the altar’s canopy. We only found out because the police caught the thieves and told us. The alarm bells rang when similar events occurred and, after considering the deterioration of the bell tower and clock tower, we had to intervene.

Restoration process in the vault of the church

TF: What would you point to as the highlights of the building as an example of Spanish Gothic art and what is its importance within your diocese? If someone asked why it should be restored, what would you say?

JM: It’s one of the most emblematic churches in Jerez and essential to understanding the history and distinctive character of Jerez society. It’s also a fundamental part of the life of the Santiago neighbourhood, as has become apparent over the 11 years in which the temple has been closed.

TF: Describe the first steps of this monumental project. Which administrations or institutions were involved?

JM: The situation was fairly complicated because nothing could be done until the suspension of payments had been legally settled and there was a real and imminent threat that the building would collapse. To avoid ruin, the matter had to be urgently resolved, which is why the diocese had to claim its rights as owner and at the same time assume responsibility for carrying out the work. It was complicated because the church had deteriorated to a significant degree and what had previously been estimated at less than a million euros had increased to more than two million, while the annual budget of the diocese came to three million euros. 

The solution was extremely risky. However, in spite of everything and thanks to the helping hand of the mayor at the time, María José Garcia-Pelayo, we took the plunge to ensure that the city of Jerez wouldn’t lose an architectural gem of that magnitude.

Stained glass windows of the Church of Santiago

TF: The work was entrusted to the Tragsa Group. Were you aware of the company before its involvement in this project? What did you think about the work carried out and what particular aspects would you highlight?

JM: We knew the company from its work with the city hall and we chose it because of the complexity of the actions that needed to be carried out, which required a company that was financially and technologically solvent. In our opinion, the result has been fantastic.

TF: The Tragsa Group has acknowledged experience in the restoration and preservation of heritage. In what way has its involvement provided solutions to the problems raised in these works?

JM: Tragsa’s solvency and integrity, its highly qualified team, its use of innovative technologies and its demanding quality standards were a guarantee that the work would be concluded without any setbacks and the execution deadlines met. In addition, the entire organisation’s commitment to creating a safe and healthy work environment, building trust based on the transparency of its management and the model of an honest and permanent communication with clients and collaborators, made it the ideal company to carry out the work. Also important for this commission was the fact that one of the functions set out in its legal regime is the execution of works for the conservation or enrichment of Spain’s Historical Heritage in the rural environment.

TF: What was the most complicated moment of the restoration?

JM: That was definitely when we discovered that the deterioration was even greater than we expected, when the wall of the presbytery was found to be so structurally unstable that the high altar area was in danger of collapse.

TF: What did it mean for the diocese, and for you personally, to have successfully completed a project of this nature? Has the result met your expectations?

JM: The satisfaction of having completed an enormous task that made it possible to keep the church of Santiago standing when it was facing total ruin, and also allowed us to place the building at the centre of our pastoral work. 

The works were completed without any financial setbacks and within the established deadlines and it goes without saying that the result responded to the expectations of both the diocese and the residents of the Santiago neighbourhood, who have been able to return to their worship thanks to the religious meetings that are again being held in the renovated church. A clear example was the inaugural event, which prompted widespread enthusiasm in the neighbourhood, its immediate surroundings and throughout the city of Jerez. This was confirmed by the sheer size of the crowds attending the various acts that took place.

 TF: What are the plans for a permanent preservation of the Church of Santiago?

JM: The tremendous expense that the diocese has had to incur – albeit financially assisted by patrons such as Jerez city hall, the Endesa Foundation, the Fundación Sevillana Endesa and Red Eléctrica, as well other contributions from individuals – has forced us to raise income through tourist visits to the church and the exhibition of sacred art in the rooms of the sacristy. This will allow us to cover the cost of maintenance as well as the repayment of the bank loan that had to be requested to carry out the restoration.

TF: As important as the Church of Santiago is the Cartuja de Jerez, the city’s charterhouse, whose restoration has been the subject of negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as well as the Ministry of Environment and Development. Are you pleased with the result of the negotiations?

JM: The contacts with both ministries, and that of Education, Culture and Sports, were conducted via Jerez de la Frontera city council at the end of 2013, obtaining the requested grant via the 1.5% cultural works provision. However, an agreement was finally reached in which the Ministry of Development, in 2015, assumed 100% of the cost of reconstruction of the rooms at the north end of the large cloister of the Cartuja, with the work beginning that same year. The same steps were followed when it came to restoring the old stables, also in 2015, although the negotiations were this time held with the Ministry of Education and the MAPAMA, with the ministry again agreeing to cover 100% of the cost. In both cases, the contact, follow-up and proposals for resolving the issues were excellent, both with the public officials and the individuals with whom the final agreements had to be reached. The whole negotiation process was very positive.

TF: Staying with the Cartuja, once you complete the transformation of the old stables into rooms and the reconstruction of the rooms at the north end of the large cloister, what should the priorities be, in view of the size of the building?

JM: Given the tremendous complexity of the Cartuja monastery, many parts of the building still need to be repaired, renovated and/or restored, although priority has been given to the restoration of Ribera’s entrance and to converting the old stables into rooms for visiting nuns. We’ll then continue with the reconstruction of the rooms for laypeople at the southern end of the cloister.

TF: Turning to Jerez Cathedral, do you think that Tragsa could also collaborate in the restoration of the bell tower? Are you planning any other conservation projects involving the heritage belonging to your diocese?

JM: The work to be carried out in the Cathedral’s tower still lacks a source of funding because the significant monetary outlay required for the renovation of the church of Santiago and other newly-built churches in recent years prevents us from undertaking expensive new interventions. However, it could indeed be a job in which Tragsa could collaborate. We are also planning to repair the sacristy rooms at the Church of San Mateo.

TF: Finally, what do you think of the cultural and historical importance of our architectural heritage and the need to carry out conservation projects of this kind?

JM: This diocese is committed to preserving the church’s heritage because it believes that it’s the obligation of society to conserve and transmit the wonderful religious heritage we have at our disposal, be it movable or immovable.

Church of St. James