Protecting the Heart

To grow the Mission campus, we must care for the thing unchanging at its center: A journey through the restoration of Mission Santa Clara de Asís.

Ours. And the world’s. The Mission is a public and a private space. It belongs to the campus. And it belongs to everyone. It must serve the needs of students, betrothed wishing to wed here, history buffs, and those looking to join in communion with God. It is a lot to ask of a set of walls. / Image by Jim Gensheimer

By Lander Eicholzer

Michael Engh, S.J. was eager to talk this spring. As Santa Clara’s President for the past decade, he’s entering the final months of his tenure on the Mission campus. Engh is an early riser. An email sent at 6:52 in the morning confirmed a 3 p.m. appointment on Santa Clara’s Mission steps proposed the previous evening. It was, he joked, a chance to avoid being trapped in his office in the nearby Walsh Administration building.

“This is not what my room looks like. It is not what my office looks like,” he says of the interior of the Mission. With its painted details and historic statuary, it is a far cry from office space. “This takes me to a different frame of mind.”

Engh was a history professor before being tapped as Santa Clara’s President. Despite his years outside the classroom, it’s clear he has lost no passion for California history, his specialty. He wasted no time giving the lay of the land. Here, the church is a global village—a combination of Spanish, Italian, and Victorian touches.

“Look at these decorations,” Engh says. “It’s a mixture. This drapery is a Spanish design but when you move further up much of this is more Victorian.”

Engh, the historian, is uniquely skilled to appreciate this place and what it means to the campus. Engh, the campus president, is charged with protecting it and is the ultimate overseer of its conservation, work that he’s come to see.

On the threshold of the main entrance is a red slab set in relief against paving stones: “Mission Santa Clara Founded 1777.” Walk in and a piece of paper situated on a stand greets you right away; printed on it is the phrase CONSERVATION IN PROGRESS.

Other signs of the work are less subtle: To the right of the altar is an orange forklift, out of place among the chairs arranged in groups of 10 on both sides of the aisle.

The current preservation project is funded by years of wedding and rental fees squirreled away by SCU Facilities Director Charlie White, plus financial support from the California Missions Foundation, a Southern California group devoted to keeping California’s historic churches healthy.

Consider this a very deep cleaning; previous work on the Mission was much more extensive.


The church today is far wider and longer than the original structure. Photos of the original altar and the ceiling were the only original materials available to architects when rebuilding the church after a devastating fire in 1926. The rest was educated guesswork.

St. Clare of Assisi remains the central figure. Some know her as Santa Clara. Dressed in robes, the statue’s garments sway whenever a fan finds itself on the high altar. Clare’s garments are a common feature of the Spanish Mission era, the product of pious women demonstrating their devotion to the saints. Clare is flanked by Mary to her left and Joseph to her right. St. Joseph became the patron saint of the Americas under the Spanish empire and remained under the Italian Jesuits who founded the University.

Over the decades since its rebuild, this trio watched over gatherings of once and future Broncos. The Mission is a place where families rejoice, students sing, lives are remembered and joined, and some come to find faith. It was at one such event that Engh first encountered the Mission—the wedding of a family friend in the early 1970s.

“It is the spiritual heart of the University, and there’s a tremendous amount of devotion to this place,” Engh says. “As the President, you want to make sure to preserve that. We didn’t turn this into a new gymnasium because we need more space to play basketball. We’re building a new basketball court instead. And we preserved this because it speaks to a different part of what people’s hearts look for, yearn for.”

Charged with that preservation are Andre and Barbara Bossak. The Bossaks were returning after a week off from work to continue chipping away at cleaning the Mission. Where they’ve already worked, a patch of olive-green paint suddenly turned mint across the chapel ceiling. The square patch looks as if sunlight is always illuminating it. Finishing the ceiling is labor-intensive work. The Bossaks earn their weekends. Their necks are craned for six hours a day.

The pair started with the choir loft—the first hurdle before tackling the rest of the church. It was a test of their work before moving on to other more visible portions of the Mission.

The couple is Polish. Andre studied to become a preservationist for more than a decade—including at the Academy of Fine Art, Cracow. They left for the United States 37 years ago and haven’t returned. Their weeks are spent restoring statues and mending stitched canvas. Years of those weeks have been spent, in part, working on this Mission.


The Bossaks are the kind of couple who finish each other’s sentences. They speak English in an interview and Polish on the job. About their work, they share this: Specialty suppliers only. Never Kmart or Craftsman. Paints from England. Adhesive not unlike a sponge or Silly Putty from Spain—it is placed gently on a section of wall and then lifted, with it comes years of grime.

When they began peeling away at decades of stains on Aloysius, a man laden with jewels appeared on the canvas—no Jesuit, that.

They point visitors toward a portrait of what was for years thought to be St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit. University curators agreed. Pamphlets proclaimed it. The public had no reason to believe differently.

But Engh was suspicious. “I said I’ve never seen a St. Aloysius with a beard, but OK it can be St. Aloysius,” he remembers.

The painting “was so dark and murky that as far as I knew, that’s who it was,” says White. But White secured funding. It was not until the Bossaks began peeling away at decades of paint and soot stains on Aloysius that a man laden with jewels appeared on the canvas—no Jesuit, that.

They had likely revealed St. Cajetan, a 16th-century priest who used his family fortune to help the poor, and is often depicted with a jeweled necklace.

The historical recorded revision.

“I just thought that was the coolest thing,” Engh says of the memory.


The Mission in Engh’s charge is the epicenter of University life. Outside the Mission’s front door, a massive cross is visible from the fountain at the head of Palm Drive. The Mission cross contains remnants from the cross erected outside the original Spanish Mission from the 1700s. The entranceway is flanked by eight smaller, white crosses— one for each of the Jesuit martyrs murdered in El Salvador 29 years ago. Here is a reminder that Santa Clara’s mission of conscience, competence, and compassion spreads far beyond Northern California.

The Santa Clara Mission was founded as part of Spanish colonial expansion in the New World. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza led a famed expedition through the area. The civilian settlers’ goal was to find arable land. It was, according to them, the end of the world.

Lighting up history: The chandeliers in the Mission are designed to re-create the church’s details as they stood in 1825. / Image by Jim Gensheimer

Today, the Valley is a global hub of commerce. Angel investor. Disruption. Unicorns. These are all buzzwords of the Silicon Valley lexicon, the language that makes tech talk. Santa Clara University has grown up alongside Silicon Valley. Before there was kombucha on tap or skyrocketing rent, the Alameda bisected the Mission campus, and Santa Clara had a football team. Now, we all watch as men and women promise to accomplish the unthinkable. California is always where people have come to have their ambition quenched.

One such ambitious man, Henry Miller, the architect last tasked with a major construction project of the Santa Clara Mission, was beset by a different set of challenges than the Bossaks face today.

A 1926 electrical fire destroyed much of the Mission, and Miller tried to re-create the building as it stood in 1825. A single bell tower would be built rather than two. Inside, the drapery on the walls was painted in Spanish style. The three chandeliers fixed to the ceiling would be Italian. Miller was also responsible for the creation of Santa Clara’s Nobili Hall, Kenna Hall, Varsi Library, and other campus mainstays. The Mission visitors see today has hardly been altered from its inaugural Mass on May 13, 1928.

Much of the art from 1926, however, remains. When the fire broke out, students from O’Connor Hall, then a dorm, scrambled against the flames to salvage anything they could. Among the rescued items: the crucifix Franciscan missionary Fr. Catala prayed before every night, and that people still come to visit today for a moment of holy reflection.

A massive painting framed in gold is to the right of the main entrance. It has the Holy Family in a triangular pattern accompanied by the Father, Son, and Spirit in a life-size relief. It was the Bossaks who had a hand in saving that piece. When they arrived it was cracked, crumbling, and near collapse.

Their work to save it wasn’t dissimilar from what the 1926 students had done—unhinging it from the wall and working from the back of the canvas. Now, royal blue and gold, lilac and salmon pink are brought to life.

A ceiling detail that has been repainted in this most recent cleaning of the Mission.


As the Bossaks pause to talk about a painting of Mary and the Christ Child to the left of the main entrance, a procession of students enters the Mission. This bunch of high schoolers looks like it could have a few future Broncos in its midst. iPhones are held aloft. Eyes wide. Feet moving forward. Their goal is not to stop and look. Before long they are gone—another exhibit in the Mission’s history.

Maintaining the Mission art collection is another of White’s responsibilities. A wall in his Mission office is the last standing piece of from the 1825 Mission. His bright blue eyes are piercing, set between white hair and a full white beard. He has overseen the Mission since 1978, a role that includes the present preservation effort and event management.

The Mission is a museum, an art gallery, and a gathering place all at once. Preserving the Mission’s past means making the space available to anyone who wishes to visit.

“This place is communicating something special as a place—as the house of God…This is a human creation in here, and an attempt to express God’s presence…”

“That is always a goal—to be a living, breathing institution instead of just a museum piece. And I have always wanted the church to be accessible to all,” says White, relaying the story of a bride who wished the Mission doors locked during her wedding.

The Mission remained open to all, ceremony or no, just as it is open during daily noon Mass to anyone who comes by, be they students looking for guidance, history buffs, or simply looky-loos.


That legacy of openness passed into new hands July 1 when Kevin O’Brien, S.J. took the reins from Engh. O’Brien is no stranger to the Santa Clara campus. He first visited 15 years ago, and has led Santa Clara’s Jesuit School of Theology. In the announcement of his appointment, O’Brien talked of the quest for knowledge that is part of Santa Clara, and also of the thing at its core.

“There the Mission Church stands. Amid the contagious spirit of the Valley, and the rapid pace of change around us, the Mission reminds us that we have a tradition that grounds our striving,” O’Brien said.

From Engh, he inherits leadership of an institution that for a decade has been expanding: the new Charney Hall law building, art facilities, and a STEM campus under construction.

Engh seems relaxed as his tenure winds down. On a recent walk past the Mission, he stopped to take a picture

with a student who had requested the same four years prior. They both smiled. The pair now share a picture from her first and senior years.

And the Mission will remain a place for treasured memories, and connection to each other and to God.

The conservation of the Mission is an ongoing process. The Bossaks completed their work on the painted details on the walls this summer and handed over the project to regular paint crews to touch up the rest.

“All of us as human beings are affected by our environment. This place is communicating something special as a place—as the house of God,” Engh says. “You can get similar experiences in other ways. You go hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains and you look out from the top of a mountain and you see Monterey Bay, and it’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining. I mean, there’s a beauty to that. That’s nature’s creation. This is a human creation in here, and an attempt to express God’s presence in painting, sculpture, color, architecture.”

And a bright mint-colored ceiling that attempts to reflect the greatness of God again brightly shines over many Bronco gatherings.

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