The Story of the Holy Child of Atocha

The Mathis collections at Villa Finale contain so much religious art that one would naturally think Walter Mathis, its collector, was a very religious man.  In fact, his collecting of such items was for the mere admiration of the items as art, and they can be found throughout the house.  Of course, he displayed all of them together in different parts of the house according to their provenance like with the Spanish colonial “retablos” found in the upstairs hallway.

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Retablos in Villa Finale’s upstairs hallway.

A “retablo,” called a  “lamina” in Mexico, is an oil paiting of a Catholic saint painted on wood or tin, and sometimes on bronze.  These retablos, which means “behind the altar,” mostly adorned altars in people’s homes.  As a kid, I remember my grandmother in Tijuana, Mexico having many of these images at home.  There were some that were quite frightening – like one of the devil coming to pick up a man on his deathbed … but I guess they were meant to scare kids straight – and one that always caught my attention, as it did my other cousins, of the Holy Child of Atocha or El Santo Niño de Atocha.  One of my cousins asked my grandmother one day what made this child a saint.  My grandmother, in what was her usual comedic way, answered simply, “Beats me, but he’s a very saintly child!”

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Walter Mathis’ Holy Child of Atocha

When I came to work at Villa Finale in 2008, the image of the Holy Child of Atocha in my grandmother’s house popped in my head when I saw that Mr. Mathis had an Atocha child retablo in his upstairs hallway collection.  Of course, I was very excited because this saint has always been one of my favorites!  Funny thing was, just like my grandmother, I didn’t know what made this child a saint until I began researching the collections for my interpretive duties at Villa Finale.  Well, now I can tell you what makes the Holy Child of Atocha a saint!

It all begins back in 711 AD with the invasion by the northern African Moors of the Iberian Peninsula, which included most of modern Spain.  In the 13th century, after the Moors took over the town of Atocha, a central suburb in today’s Madrid, they encarcerated Catholic males and prevented their families from giving them food and water. The only exception to that rule was children under 12 who were allowed to visit and feed family members.  This left jailed men without young children – or children altogether – in quite a quandary.  Their relatives began to pray for help from Our Lady of Atocha, the local name of the holy Virgin Mary and Christ Child located in the town’s chapel.

One day, the local children who were out feeding their captive relatives returned with reports of an unidentified boy who the Moors were allowing to feed all the men who had not been previously attended to.  This boy, reported the children, appeared to be under 12 years old, was dressed in pilgrim attire (with a plumed hat and cloak) and carried a basket of food and gourd full of water.  The miraculous thing was no matter how many prisoners the child fed, his gourd and his basket remained full.  As sightings of the child continued, the people of Atocha ran to the chapel to give thanks.  There, they discovered that the little sandals worn by the Christ Child figure in the arms of Our Lady of Atocha were worn and dusty.  They replaced the sandals only to find them worn and dusty again as the child feeding the prisoners continued his rounds day after day.

The Muslim rule by the Moors finally ended in 1492, but by then the miracles of the Holy Child of Atocha were well known and revered throughout Iberia.  Eventually, the reverence of the Holy Child of Atocha made its way to the New World with the arrival of the Spanish.  By 1554 there was a statue of the Child brought from Atocha to Zacatecas, Mexico where the villagers immediately began reporting sightings of the boy.  And thus the Santo Niño’s adventures in the Americas began.

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Traditional portrayal

In religious art, the Holy Child is typically depicted wearing a large-brimmed plumed pilgrim’s hat, cloak, and sandals.  Sometimes he is barefoot to denote the wearing out of his sandals from walking.  He carries a basket in one hand and staff in the other.  The gourd for water is fastened to the end of the staff.  Other symbolism associated with the image are stalks of wheat, flowers and scallop shell meant to represent holy pilgrimages.  Today, there are two main shrines in the Americas to the Holy Child of Atocha: one in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico and the other is in the Sanctuario in Chimayo, New Mexico.  The Holy Child is the patron saint of the unjustly imprisoned, the protector of travelers and rescuer of those in danger.

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Holy Child of Atocha in Zacatecas, Mexico.  (From screen capture, YouTube user Viajero981)

 

Next time you come to Villa Finale, take a good look at all the religious art in the collection.  What kind of symbolism do you see?  What part of a story do you think it tells?  And make sure you look for El Santo Niño de Atocha in the upstairs hallway now that you know what makes him a “very saintly child.”  My grandmother would be proud!

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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with a Mexican Classic

HHCTX SEAL LogoIn honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Villa Finale will be collaborating with the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas in an outdoor screening of the 1948 Mexican classic, Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca), on Friday, September 12, 2014.  The movie was made during the golden age of Mexican cinema (1936 – 1969).  The films of this time were of high quality due to superior script-writing, directing, film production, originality and on-screen talent.  One of the most famous actors during this period was Pedro Infante, who plays the lead in Los Tres Huastecos.

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Pedro Infante (1917 – 1957)

Born in November 1918 in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, Infante showed great natural talent for music.  He learned to play strings, wind and percussion instruments from his father – a musician – at a very early age and also had a rich singing voice to round out his talents.  His first wife convinced him to move to Mexico City where he could be discovered and in 1943 he made his first recording for Peerless Records; that same year he also had a small part in his first film.  Recognizing his natural acting ability and Infante’s incredible singing voice, it wasn’t long before he was one of the most sought-after performers in Mexico.  Because he came from humble origins, was charismatic and played the “everyday man” in his films, he quickly became a favorite with Mexican audiences.

 

In 1948, Pedro Infante was approached by Ismael Rodriguez, one of Mexico’s top filmakers and directors, to star in Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca).  A comedic / musical drama co-written by Rodriguez, the film’s story involves triplets separated at birth after their mother dies during child birth.  treshuastecosEach of the boys is raised by their individual godfather in different areas of Mexico’s Huasteca region (located along the Gulf of Mexico) and grow up with their own personalities: one is a priest, the other a military man, and the last a rough gambler and bar owner.  The three brothers come together in the hunt for “El Coyote,” a thief and murderer who is terrorizing the region.  In addition to original huapango musical selections included in the soundtrack (huapango music highly influenced today’s Texas conjunto sound), the film features creative special effects (state-of-the-art for that time) as Infante plays all three of the brothers.

 

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Blanca Estela Pavon (1926 – 1949)

Always up for a career challenge, Infante gladly accepted playing three different characters with their own unique personalities.  His brother, Angel, played Infante’s body double and stand-in for some of the scenes featuring more than one brother.  The film co-starred Blanca Estela Pavon – who played opposite Infante in many of his most memorable films and who was “Mexico’s sweetheart” – as the love interest of one of the brothers.  Comic Fernando Soto – aka Mantequilla (“butter”) – played the hapless sacristan (the keeper of the local church’s sacristy) and four-year-old new-comer, Maria Eugenia Llamas (aka “La Tucita,” diminutive for tuza meaning pocket gopher) played the gambler brother’s daughter.  Llamas steals scene after scene in the film as the little girl being raised as a tomboy with poor manners.  Her pets include a snake and tarantula which she handles very naturally.  Llamas later recalled that director Ismael Rodriguez treated the film shoot as a game so it was very easy for her to act and handle her on-screen pets.

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Maria Eugenia Llamas “La Tucita” (1944 – 2014)

The film was a hit and received several Ariel award nominations (the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award) including best director, actor, child performer and original screenplay.  It remains one of Infante’s most memorable and best known films.

Sadly, only one year after the release of the film, Blanca Estela Pavon died in a plane crash near the Popocatépetl volcano.  Pavon was only 23 and at the height of her career.  It is said that Infante, who co-starred with Pavon in several films, was inconsolable at the news.  Only eight years later, Pedro Infante also perished in an aerial accident when a B-24 Liberator he was piloting crashed only five minutes after takeoff; he was only 39.  Pavon and Infante are buried in the same cemetary.  Maria Eugenia Llamas, who would be known by her Tres Huestecos character name of La Tucita for the rest of her career, died on August 31, 2014 at the age of 70.

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One of many Infante statues throughout Mexico.

For many who grew up watching Pedro Infante films thanks to the influence of our parents – myself included – this is one movie that is near and dear to our childhoods.  And for those who are not familiar with Pedro Infante or Mexican films of this era, Los Tres Huastecos is a great movie to get a feeling for the quality of the country’s cinema at this time.  (Note: Pedro Infante’s talent was not lost to people in the United States.  Walter Mathis has an album by Infante in his record collection.  Infante was in talks to make his cross-over debut in the United States prior to his death.)

Come join Villa Finale and the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas for an outdoor screening of this Mexican classic on Friday, September 12th!  Admission is FREE.  Picnics, lawn chairs, blankets and pets on leash are welcome.  The HHCTX will be providing complimentary snacks.  Villa Finale will be having a raffle for free guided tour admissions to the museum.  Gates open at 6:00pm.

 

Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico

Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico

We are also happy to welcome the Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico who will be performing at 6:45pm prior to the film screening.  See you at the movies!

 

What:
Screening of the Mexican Classic Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca) 1948 – running time: 2 hours
Presented with English subtitles, co-sponsored by Villa Finale and the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas

When: Friday, September 12, 2014

Times:
Gates open at 6:00pm
Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico performance at 6:45pm
Film begins at approximately 7:35pm

Admission:
FREE

For more information, please call Villa Finale Visitor Services at (210) 223-9800.  Click here to learn more about the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas.

Napoleon, Josephine and Maria Walewska: A Triangle for the Ages

Napoleon Bonaparte (public domain image)

Napoleon Bonaparte (public domain image)

The woman most associated with Napoleon Bonaparte is Josephine, whose real name was Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie.  Apparently, Napoleon did not like the name “Rose,” which is what Josephine’s family and friends called her, telling the attractive widow: “I don’t like your name; from now on I will call you Josephine.” (1) The pair met in 1795 when Napoleon was just beginning to make a name for himself in the French military and was seen as one of its greatest up-and-coming officers.

There are several stories as to how and where the two met, but it is most likely it happened at a social event.  At the time, Josephine – who was a well-known figure in French society – was the mistress of Paul Barras, Napoleon’s mentor and “de facto” governor of France.  Realizing that she was not getting any younger (Josephine was 32 in 1795) and with Barras’ attention being directed toward another woman, Josephine knew she was facing the possibility of losing financial support for herself and her two children, Eugene and Hortense.  Ever the smart and captivating woman, she set her eyes on the unrefined Napoleon, who, young and inexperienced, immediately fell for her advances.  Josephine could see that the young officer was destined for greatness.  The pair was married in March 1796 with Napoleon receiving a promotion to commander-in-chief of the army of Italy as a wedding present from Paul Barras. (2)

Josephine Bonaparte (public domain image)

Josephine Bonaparte (public domain image)

Three days after the wedding, Napoleon left for Nice leaving his beloved bride behind.  His love letters to Josephine at this time are quite passionate and reveal how love-sick he was without her.  However, Josephine, who unlike her new husband married as a matter of convenience, was back in Paris enjoying the companionship different lovers, most notably a lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles.  The news of Josephine’s indiscretions were eventually revealed to Napoleon who had remained completely devoted to his wife refusing to take on a mistress, like many of his officers had done.  After finally taking on a mistress while in Egypt, he resolved to divorce Josephine but when he returned to France in 1799, she again used her charms to reconcile with her husband.  Josephine, an infamous spender, had gone into deep debt while Napoleon had been away and she realized it behooved her to stay married.

Even though the couple seemingly worked things out, Napoleon’s initial passion for his wife was gone.  This is quite ironic as Josephine’s love for the man blossomed and grew.  This set the stage for a number of mistresses Napoleon would have over his career.  Being a man of growing power and eventually Emperor of France, he had no problems getting any woman he wanted.  At the height of his power in 1807, Napoleon met the Countess Maria Walewska in Warsaw, Poland.  The beautiful 20-year-old Maria quickly caught the wandering eye of Emperor Bonaparte who was quick to ask for a private meeting with the young noble woman.  Maria was married to 71-year-old Count Anastase Walewski who, allegedly, encouraged his young bride to do whatever it took to ingratiate herself to Napoleon with the goal of helping Poland become in independent state.

Marie Walewska (public domain image)

Maria Walewska (public domain image)

And so it was that Maria Walewska, much to Josephine’s chagrin, became not only Napoleon’s friend and confidant, but mistress.  In fact, she joined him for several weeks in Paris and then Vienna.  In May 1810, Alexandre Florian Joseph Walewski was born to Maria.  The baby was allegedly the illegitimate son of Napoleon, although Alexandre claimed in later years that his father was Count Walewski who had legally recognized him as his son.  Be that as it may, the birth of Maria’s son was seen as further proof that Josephine, and not Napoleon, was physically incapable of bearing a child.  This would eventually lead to the couple divorcing in 1809 so he could marry the young and fertile Marie-Louise of Austria who would give birth to a son in 1811, Napoleon François Joseph Charles.

Maria claimed her relationship with Napoleon was born solely out of patriotic duty.  Despite this, Maria’s devotion and love for Napoleon – however it began – was clear to all; Maria even visited Napoleon when he was in exile in Elba.  Although Poland did not reach the large independent state it hoped, it did reach independence as the smaller, but free, Grand Duchy of Warsaw, thanks to Emperor Bonaparte.

Alexandre Walewski (public domain image)

Alexandre Walewski (public domain image)

The final outcome of this triangle is very interesting and history-making.  Although it was proven, through the birth of Maria’s son, that Napoleon was not infertile thus making the case for his divorce from Josephine and the birth of a legitimate heir, Napoleon lost his most arduous supporter and “good luck charm” in Josephine.  Napoleon’s Grand Armee suffered extraordinary losses in Russia in 1812 and never fully recovered until he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  The once great Emperor of France died in exile on the British island of St. Helena in 1821.  But what of his son, Napoleon II, the King of Rome, as he was called?

After his father abdicated in 1814, Marie-Louise escaped with the boy to Austria and was given the title Duke of Reichstadt by his maternal grandfather.  Marie-Louise remarried Austrian General Count von Neipperg in 1821, only a few months after Bonaparte’s death.  Apparently, Marie-Louise had two illegitimate children by Count von Neipperg prior to their marriage, a fact that the young Napoleon François saw as a weakness in his mother allegedly saying, “If Josephine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna.  My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.” (3)  Clearly, Josephine’s reputation as a strong woman preceded her, not being lost even in the eyes of the boy who was the reason for her divorce.  The young Napoleon II would die at age 21 of tuberculosis.

Napoleon II (public domain image)

Napoleon II (public domain image)

As far as Maria Walewska, she divorced Count Walewski and married a Count d’Ornano in 1816.  She died shortly after giving birth to a son in 1817.  Maria’s legacy is two-fold: first, her success in convincing Napoleon of Poland’s need to be independent.  Second, her giving birth of Napoleon’s illegitimate son, Alexandre.  It is through Alexandre that Napoleon Bonaparte’s direct lineage continues … ironically, it’s through several descendants of a child he had out-of-wedlock with an actress, Rachel Felix and whom he later adopted.

At Villa Finale’s upcoming La Fête Napoléon, a gala celebrating the Napoleonic era, costumed actors portraying Napoleon, Josephine and Maria Walewska will be in attendance greeting and interacting with guests.  Now that you know how this triangle affected the course of history, what would you ask?

La Fête Napoléon, a gala celebrating the Napoleonic era: Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 7:00pm.  Admissions begin at $200 per person.  Proceeds support Villa Finale’s ongoing community efforts.  Call (210) 223-9800 for admissions or further information.

End Notes:
1. Proctor Patterson Jones, Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy (San Francisco, California: Proctor James Publishing Company, 1992), xxxiii.
2. Ibid.
3. Felix Markham,
Napoleon: A Startling New Interpretation of His Life and Legend Based on Recently Discovered Documents (New York, New York: Signet, 1966), 249.

Sources:
Jones, Proctor Patterson.  Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy.  San Francisco: Proctor Jones Publishing Company, 1992.

Markham, David J.  Napoleon for Dummies.  Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Markham, Felix.  Napoleon: A Startling New Interpretation of His Life and Legend Based on Recently Discovered Documents.  New York: Signet, 1963.

Second annual staff retreat: Galveston, Texas

On the Tall Ship Elissa

On the Tall Ship Elissa

Those of us who work at Villa Finale are fortunate to have leadership that encourages staff enrichment and development. For the second straight year, we loaded a mini van and all headed to Galveston to visit historic sites, places of interest and meet with other in the fields of museum and preservation.

As in 2013, our accommodations were once again at the Michel B. Menard House.  Built in 1838, the house is now the oldest surviving house in the city and is operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation.  After carefully picking out our rooms for our stay, we headed out to the Texas Seaport Museum to tour the Tall Ship Elissa.  Built

Boat tour of Galveston Bay

Boat tour of Galveston Bay

in Scotland in 1877, the barque is one of the oldest sailing ships in the world.  The ship is kept in tip-top shape by caring volunteers, many of whom have an opportunity to sail on the Elissa as a reward for number of hours served.  Many thanks to Rachel for the wonderful tour!  After our visit on the Elissa, the staff received its own private boat tour of Galveston Bay by the very entertaining Captain Wes and his one-woman crew.  The staff was enthralled by the amount of dolphins we saw frolicking throughout!  A highlight of the day was an Italian dinner with colleagues from the Galveston Historical Foundation.  Sharing stories about historic preservation over fine food and a glass of wine was a fitting way to end day one.

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At Shangri La

Day two began early the next day.  The staff, still tired from the boat ride and all the excitement of our arrival, stuffed itself in the van for a ferry ride that was the beginning of our trip to Orange, Texas and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.  The Center, a program of the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, is sprawled out over 200 acres; the Botanical Gardens contain over 300 plant species, many of which are in meticulously maintained green houses.  For me, the Pond of the Blue Moon and the Children’s Garden were the most fascinating.  After lunch at Shangri La, the staff received a tour of the 1894 W.H. Stark House, also in Orange.  The three-story house is furnished with original family pieces and is definitely something to see if you’re ever in Orange.

McFaddin-Ward House

McFaddin-Ward House

Our historic homes tour did not end there.  Our next stop was Beaumont and the McFaddin-Ward House.  The house, built in 1905, was the home of W.P.H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin and family who made their fortune from the cattle and oil business.  The entire house is lavishly decorated but I think the staff would agree that our favorite place in the house was in the third floor, where the McFaddin boys lived.  It was quite the “man cave!”  For those of us who have made our careers in the museum field, the curatorial storage was an incredible thing to see – everything is carefully stored with proper materials and using best practices.  I was like a kid in a candy store!  Thank you so much to the McFaddin-Ward staff for sharing the space

Bishop's Palace

Bishop’s Palace

with us!  After yet another long day, the staff enjoyed down-time back in Galveston with a delicious dinner at the Saltwater Grill: you can’t go to Galveston and not have sea food!

On our last day in Galveston, the staff made its way to the Bishop’s Palace.  This was a stop during last year’s trip, however, some of us were unable to travel so I am happy it was added to the agenda once again.  The Bishop’s Palace is an absolute must-see if you’re ever in Galveston!  Designed and built in 1892 by architect Nicholas Clayton for railroad magnate Walter Gresham, the unfurnished house is nearly 21,000 square

Inside the magnificent Bishop's Palace

Inside the magnificent Bishop’s Palace

feet on an incredibly small lot but, wow!  What an amazing structure!  From its intricate wood details to its beautiful windows, the Bishop’s Palace does not need any furnishings in order to shine.

Next stop after the grandeur of the Bishop’s Palace was The Menil Collection in Houston.  This was an opportunity for each staff member to wander on their own to enjoy their preferred forms of art.  The stop at the Menil was fitting before our visit to Rienzi – the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  Rienzi is actually a house museum for European decorative arts located in Houston’s historic River Oaks neighborhood.  The home itself was built in 1952 for philanthropists Carol Sterling Masterson and

Sunset in Galveston

Sunset in Galveston

Harris Masterson III who, among their many endeavors, were avid collectors, much like Walter Mathis who owned

Villa Finale.  Unlike Villa Finale, however, Rienzi continues to add to the collection for the purpose of displaying items that are the best examples of its European theme.  It is always a treat to visit unique sites like Rienzi.

Needless to say, the staff was tuckered out after our three days of nonstop visits!  We arrived back in San Antonio safe and sound, just ahead of a rare freeze.  I guess it was very fitting as we “cooled down” from a very busy and exciting trip.

A “saintly” mystery solved

san antonio prior to lampIf you have visited Villa Finale, you most-likely remember seeing the very unique “saint lamp” in the home’s Library.  The piece was not “born” a lamp; in fact, it is a Walter Mathis originale.  As he was known to do with several items in his collection, Mathis altered the item from church relic to a clever piece of home-decor by having a custom-made pedestal wired for use as a lamp.  The statue, which is the centerpiece of this “enlightened” piece, fits perfectly at the base and in fact, itself was not altered in any way, thereby maintaining its integrity other than the addition of a crucifix and timepiece by Mathis.

The “saint lamp” was an item Mathis acquired early on in his collecting endeavors.  In fact, there is an interior photograph (left) of the statue – before its conversion – proudly displayed in his home in Monte Vista, circa 1950s, years before his purchase of Villa Finale in King William.  The home, located at 705 East Mulberry, was razed for the Highway 281 project.

st anthony river walkIn all the years Mathis owned the lamp, he was quick to identify the statue as being that of Saint Anthony of Padua, something that would make perfect sense since San Antonio, Mathis’ hometown, is named after the saint.  (A Spanish expedition arrived here on June 13, 1691, St. Anthony’s feast day.)  However, there has been some question about who the likeness is truly representing, especially since opening the house to tours.  As some have pointed out, St. Anthony is normally depicted holding an open book on which sits the Christ-child, a reference to a vision had by Anthony.  (See photo at left: statue of St. Anthony along the River Walk.)  The statue on the lamp contains none of the symbolism normally associated with St. Anthony.  So who could the figure truly be?  A few people, even some of Villa Finale’s volunteers, have suggested it may be St. Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552) was attending the University of Paris where he met Ignatius Loyola.  The pair, along with others, took monastic vows and were the first Jesuits after being ordained in Venice in 1537.  Due to his missionary work throughout Asia, where he converted over 2,000 people, St. Francis Xavier is known as the “Apostle of the Indies.”  Despite his work throughout the continent, he never accomplished his life-long dream of reaching China.  He took ill and died on the island of Shangchuan, less than nine miles from mainland China while waiting for the ship that would take him to his destination.

IMG_2997So how is Francis Xavier depicted in art?  Normally as a young, bearded Jesuit (humble) holding a torch and flame, cross and / or lily.  Other than the beard and Jesuit robe, the statue on the lamp has none of the other symbols, either but the hands, despite missing several digits, show clear indications of having something resting in them at one time (left).  Additionally, Dr. Marion Oettinger, Curator of Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, identified the saint in question as being Francis Xavier on a recent visit to Villa Finale.

Although Walter Mathis was a great admirer of religious art as well as an avid collector of it, he cannot be faulted for mis-identifying Francis Xavier as St. Anthony of Padua.  With over 8,000 saints, blesseds and venerables recognized by the Catholic Church, many of us would have made the exact same assumption.

Cited: Jones, Alison.  Saints.  New York: W & R Chambers Ltd., 1992

A True Story: Meg and the Victorian Society in America American Summer School, Newport, Rhode Island

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

I am now an alumnus of the Summer School, Class of 2013.  I survived!  Upon acceptance, course director, Professor Richard Guy Wilson wrote, in a letter sent out to the class before we all gathered on June 9th, we were NOT to wear new shoes because we were to be on our feet for six to eight hours a day. 

But…but…I had a pair of new sandals I just had to wear.

He was right of course. It was intense.  All in all, the group of 31 saw 62 sites in nine days. Yup, that averages out to seven sites a day.  The roster included churches, mills, private homes and historic house museums, libraries and art societies.

The Victorian Society Summer Schools, yes there are two: American (Newport) and British (London) was established nearly 40 years ago.  Here is an excerpted description of the schools, taken from Society literature:

2. 1890's Marble House

2. 1890’s Marble House

Both schools focus on a variety of 19th and 20th century architecture and material culture. Through lectures (we had thirteen) site visits and tours (62) of important buildings – many of which are not open to the public – students acquire a comprehensive understanding of the aesthetic, social, economic and political forces that shaped our modern age.

I benefited greatly from further education about one of the most beauty-filled periods in our history, the Victorian era. This time in history was also highly interesting to Villa Finale’s Walter Mathis, as any of you who have visited know!  I like to believe Mathis surrounded himself with beauty because he derived a great deal of happiness and contentment from it.  Aesthetics should be a part of the lives of everyone, but the concept is often ignored. 

3. Ochre Court

3. Ochre Court

Mathis had the idea that visitors would be able to experience the home of a ‘Victorian gentleman’ when they visited Villa Finale.  As a result, the house appears as if there is not one square inch left uncovered.  The effect is dazzling and incredibly appropriate for the era. He was spot-on in his decoration.

On the more practical side, during the nine-day course, I examined the successes and challenges in historic preservation, collections management and historic house and landscape interpretation in Newport, a highly successful model of heritage tourism.

4. Breakers kitchen

4. Breakers kitchen

I was able to study houses and their collections not normally on view, and have access to the people who keep and interpret them.  Since I am responsible for a collection numbering 12,000, I was able to observe both stored and exposed collections in a variety of historic house museums and understand how to counter wear on buildings and collections caused by visitors. 

Professor Wilson took us through Newport chronologically, going from this – the 1690s Wanton-Lyman-Hazzard House (1) to this – 1890s Marble House (2).

I learned much about what is successful and what really just doesn’t work in historic houses: for example, the offices within Ochre Court (3) and the big plex boxes (4) in the beautiful Breakers kitchen.

I felt that Walter Mathis would have been pleased with the summer school, after all he was a long-time member of the Victorian Society and there were so many things that appeared in the tours that also appear in Villa Finale! Another pewter-filled Welsh dresser (5). Can you find Villa Finale’s oyster plate? (6). Lots of encaustic tiles on porches! (7). Enamel eggs, chalices (8) and micro-mosaics (9). A whole cabinet full of Wedgwood Fairyland Luster (10).

Volunteer Writings: Travels to Comfort, Texas

Villa Finale invites its volunteer staff to write articles about their interests and travels in our The Bee Line volunteer e-newsletter.  For your enjoyment, we would like to share this and future writings by our volunteer staff.  The following article is by Rebekah Bustamante, one of our Guides and member of Villa Finale’s Volunteer Council.  Thank you for sharing your travels, Rebekah!

Rebekah Bustamante

Rebekah Bustamante

It is interesting that as I sat here thinking of our visit to Comfort, Texas last week, and considering writing an article on it, I noticed an article in My SA Home Page June 12,2013. If you have not read it, you will find it an interesting read. What impressed me is the connections between Comfort and San Antonio. San Antonio and the King William area share results of efforts by architect Alfred Giles, Ernst Hermann Altgelt and Albert Steves with the town of Comfort, Texas.

Comfort is a forty-seven mile drive or forty-six minutes from downtown San Antonio. It was established Sept 3, 1854 by freethinking German immigrants. Some migrated from the collapsed Fisher-Miller Land Grant experimental colonies of the Darmstadt Society of Forty that had originally planned to establish socialistic communes in Wisconsin. Some were encouraged to come when the Adelsverein was organized. Still others followed Prince Solms from the Johann Dethard proceeding to New Braunfels. After a short time in New Braunfels, Fritz and Betty Holekamp began construction on their home, the first home in Comfort before the city was officially founded. Along with Ernst Altgelt age 22, Fritz Holekamp helped survey, lay out and found Comfort. Betty Holekamp is recognized for several “firsts.” She was the first-known white woman to cross the Guadalupe River on horseback. She was the first to sew an American flag when Texas was accepted into the Union, and she was the first to give birth to a white child in Kendall County.

DSC01977Ernst Algelt began lumber and grist mills without success. In 1855, he married Emma Murck and took up the practice of law. In 1866 he moved to San Antonio surveyed and platted King William, built the first house on King William St. and had the privilege of naming the Street after Wilhelm I of Prussia. His second home, which was more elaborate was built at 226 King William. He had nine children and died at his family ranch in Wassenburg, Texas. Architect Alfred Giles, who lived and designed homes in San Antonio would ride horses, stagecoach or train to check his building sites in Comfort. Seven of the over 100 structures dating back to the 1800s were designed by him.

DSC01972The Steves family farmed on the Guadalupe River near New Braunfels and then began a farm and stock ranch on Cypress Creek between Comfort and Kerrville. Albert Steves erected a bat roost on his family farm to attract bats and control mosquito populations by natural means. At one time there were sixteen in the US and Europe. The one in comfort and another in the Florida Keys are the only two remaining. There are three homes on King William that were built by the Steves when the Indian raids made it difficult to live near Comfort. Their lumber company has changed locations many times since it was first located behind the Menger Hotel, off Alamo Plaza, where the Joske’s Store now stands, to Walnut and then Buena Vista & South Medina. The Steves Family Lumber has grown to locations nationwide and is still making doors.

DSC01989When you visit Comfort you learn more about San Antonio. Should you wander that direction, on your way be sure to check out the Old Tunnel State Park where a colony of 1-3 million Mexican free-tailed bats reside seasonally May – Oct. This tunnel originally was a passage through the hills for the Southern Pacific RR. Be sure to see the Steves hygieostati bat roost and the Treuer der Union monument. This is the only monument in the state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to honor German settlers massacred by Confederates on the banks of the Nueces River as they tried to reach Union Troops via Mexico. There are more classic German stone home buildings in Comfort than almost anywhere else in Texas. Most of them are now housing antiques, restaurants or bed & breakfasts. You might find collectible objects that you enjoy in Villa Finale.

Interested in joining Villa Finale’s volunteer staff?  Contact Sharon Wallace, Lead Guide & Volunteer Coordinator at SWallace@savingplaces.org.