Historic recreation on display at Mission San Diego de Alcala
Doug Curlee | Uptown News
As you walk into the church at Mission San Diego de Alcala on San Diego Mission Road in Grantville, you might glance to your left just inside the door. In a small alcove behind a stand of votive candles, you’ll see what looks like a small birdbath, covered with a copper-colored lid that looks old.
It’s so much more than a birdbath.
Catholics will recognize it as a baptismal font, where infants are brought into the faith of their ancestors. But there is more than just decoration here — more than just a font made to look as though it belongs there.
If you happened to be in the Iglesia de San Pedro in Petra, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, you’d see the original that the Mission de Alcala font was copied from. Millions of Catholics and others have seen that font, and even prayed at it, because it was in that Spanish baptismal font that the infant Junipero Serra was baptized in the year 1713.
Who knew back then that Father Junipero Serra would become the father of the California mission system, beginning with ours here in 1769?
The mission that stands today is actually the second one built in San Diego. The first, built along the San Diego River in 1775, was sacked and burned in a Native American uprising and eventually rebuilt where it stands now.
Fast forward to 2011.
Thanks to a generous donation from Marion Kelley, widow of longtime mission patron Hank Kelley, it was decided to recreate, as much as possible, the original Father Serra baptismal font.
Enter Pat Downing, one of the best-known traditional blacksmiths in America, who agreed to take a commission to recreate the copper cover for the font. (You can see Downing every Tuesday and Thursday at the blacksmith shop at Old Town State Park, working in steel and iron, and showing how it’s supposed to be done.) But almost immediately, there became something of a problem.
“I’m a blacksmith. I’m not a coppersmith,” Downing said. “I’d never really worked with many other metals before.”
Downing got pictures and sketches of the original Spanish font cover and went to work. He decided that it should be done using the same processes the original coppersmith had used centuries before, and it was a long, slow process.
Copper has to be annealed before being worked. That means it had to be heated to glowing, then allowed to cool to near room temperature before being carefully hammered into shape.
The techniques, such as repoussé and chasing the designs into the copper, are almost lost arts today.
“I’d guess a good estimate of the time it took would be around 100 hours, all done in my home workshop in what I used to think was spare time,” Downing said. “You can figure it took between eight and ten thousand careful hammer strikes before it was finally done.”
But the long hours and the care taken paid off. Today, the font and its copper cover are yet another memorial to the father of the California mission system. It’s not used for baptisms, since the basin is not lined with copper to hold water. It stands as a display and a focal point for Catholics and historians.
It was a long trek for Pat Downing, and he still doesn’t consider himself a coppersmith. But he is someone who reveres the old ways of doing things.
“Someone could have taken a 36-inch square sheet of copper, put it in a press, and gotten this done in a few minutes,” Downing said. “But it just wouldn’t have been the same.”