Pam Marino here, thinking about my first memory of the Carmel Mission. I was around 6 or 7 years old when my mom’s best friend got married inside the basilica and asked my mom to be her matron of honor and me to be the flower girl.
I marched down the aisle of the old stone church in the white, perfectly tailored dress my mom sewed, white lace tights and shiny, white mary janes, a beautiful and fragrant headband of fresh flowers in my hair. When I reached the front I sat in a very old, carved wooden chair to the left of the altar for the ceremony.
It’s very possible that the chair I sat in was there because of Harry Downie. He was the Carmel Mission’s chief restoration expert starting in 1931 when he stopped to make a few repairs for San Carlos Church in Monterey and then the mission, while he was on his way to open his own cabinet shop in Santa Barbara. He never made it there. He worked at carefully restoring the mission for 50 years, until his death in 1980.
I wrote about Downie in this week’s print edition of the Weekly, in a feature about the $4 million renovation underway by the Carmel Mission Foundation. The project broke ground on April 5 and is scheduled for completion in time for the mission’s 250th anniversary this fall. The main part of the project is restoring the 102-year-old adobe that sits to the right of the basilica, once used as quarters for visiting priests. Today it is the Downie Museum.
In addition to carefully restoring the structures and grounds of the mission, Downie went to great lengths to return furniture and artifacts that were moved or taken from the church over the decades, especially after it fell into ruin in the 1830s. Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Zelei tells me that Downie traveled all over California retrieving items that the padres had either branded with the mission’s “MR” cattle brand (which stood for “Monterey”) or etched with the mission’s name.
Sometimes Downie asked permission to take things back to what he believed was their rightful home, and sometimes he thought it best to skip the permission part and hope for forgiveness later.
An example of the latter was when he “permanently borrowed” some ornate vestments worn by the mission’s padres in days gone by. Downie found out that the vestments were being stored at San Carlos Church, Celeste Pagliarulo wrote in a scholarly article published in 2004. Downie devised a plan to get them back.
He finagled a dinner invitation from the priests in Monterey, and while he was there he smuggled the vestments out of the church and took them back to the Carmel Mission. Pagliarulo writes that one of the priests got wind of what happened and headed over to find out for himself if Downie had indeed taken the vestments. When the priest arrived, he found the vestments beautifully displayed in a glass case constructed by Downie.
Downie got an earful that day, but his punishment was light. He was warned not to remove any more items without permission. And clearly all was forgiven by the Catholic Church: He was later named to the knighthood of St. Gregory by Pope Pius and was knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain for his restoration work, making him officially “Sir Harry Downie.”
I’m looking forward to seeing the completed Downie Museum, courtyard, fountain and gardens when the most recent restoration project is completed. I’m sure Sir Harry, whose remains rest in the graveyard just beyond the adobe, is happy to know his work continues.