Who Rebuilt the Mission?

Architect Henry Miller wanted to renovate the Mission in the 1920s. Then came the fire.

Who Rebuilt the Mission?
Finding a niche: Architect Henry Miller checks out the view from the spot where a statue of St. Clare will stand. / Photo courtesy Jim Purcell and SCU Archives and Special Collections

Words adapted from a history written by Teresa P. Rupp ’80.

ARCHITECT HENRY MILLER was busy in the 1920s with work on campus. And when Cornelius McCoy, S.J., was named president of Santa Clara in 1926, he proposed restoration of the Mission Church along historic lines. Remodelings during the previous century had left the church scarcely recognizable as a California mission. Then came the fire.

Faulty wiring was to blame. The fire started in the north bell tower of the Mission. (At that time there were two towers.) A priest celebrating Mass on the morning of Oct. 25 gave the alarm, and students and faculty tried valiantly to save the historic building. Alas, the church was totally destroyed—though students rescued many books, statues, paintings, other liturgical objects, and one mission bell. That night, the bell rang the De Profundis for the dead, as it had for a hundred years.

Encouraged by a flood of sympathy and donations, the University administration began reconstruction of the destroyed church almost immediately. Rather than a duplication of the church that had burned, the restoration attempted to recapture the appearance of the 1825 church before its many remodelings. The church was again made wider than the original because it had to serve as the University chapel. The facade, however, returned to its original one-tower design, embellished with carved wooden statues of the saints instead of painted decorations. The decorations of the interior also followed the original lines, except that the patterns on the walls were painted in pastel pink and blue instead of the original brilliant red and yellow. Careful copies were made of the destroyed Mexican reredos and the painted ceiling.

Heading up work on restoring the historic mission was Henry Miller, who had a hand in building structures that defined so much of Santa Clara for decades: Kenna and Nobili Halls, Varsi Library, the Seifert Gymnasium, and the Donohoe Infirmary. When the four-floor Nobili Hall was built, the entire student body of Santa Clara consisted of only 300 students; the top floor was left unfinished because of skepticism from faculty that it would ever be needed.

The sixth Mission Church was dedicated May 13, 1928. From then until now it has served as the University chapel, used by the University community for Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Henry Miller died in 1937 at age 70, and a special Requiem Mass was held for him at the Mission.

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