It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in San Miguel de Allende as a group of Los Angeles philanthropists boards a chartered bus with a flashy paint job. As the bus heads north on the Dolores Hidalgo Highway and turns west onto a dirt road leading to the tiny village of Atotonilco, the passengers chat about their children, the stock market, last night's margaritas and the best places to buy Mexican jewelry. But when they disembark, stroll down a path lined with stalls of Catholic goods and approach the village's claim to fame, an 18th century church in a walled complex, they snap to attention.
The time has finally come for the group -- which banded together five years ago and calls itself the Friends of Heritage Preservation -- to see the results of its biggest project to date: the restoration of the Calvary Chapel of the Sanctuary of Jesus of Nazareth. An astonishing shrine, it's austere on the outside but so elaborately decorated inside that it's popularly known as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico.
It's also an extraordinary labor of love. Founded in 1740 and built over 36 years by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro -- who hired an otherwise unknown artist, Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, to carry out his imaginative plan for filling the walls and ceilings with religious imagery and text -- the improbable monument might also be likened to Los Angeles' Watts Towers, constructed over 34 years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.
The Atotonilco sanctuary originated as a spiritual retreat near thermal hot springs, and it has become a major destination for Mexican pilgrims and penitents. But by 1996 it had fallen into such disrepair that the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based conservation organization, put the church on its worldwide "Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites."