Going Home - Diocese plays role in arranging return of 200-year-old crucifix to Mexico
by William J. Dagendesh
COLORADO SPRINGS. The 200 year-old Cristo Crucificando, also known as the Tilley Cross, soon will be shipped back home to Mexico.
The crucifix, presently on display in the Colorado College Fine Arts Center (FAC) in Colorado Springs, is believed to have once hung in a local chapel or village church in the Queretaro region, located in the north-central area of Mexico. The cross earned its nickname from the man who bought the piece. His daughter, Eve Tilley-Chavez, is president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council.
Students with the Colorado College Museum Practicum have spent more than a year researching, studying and examining the crucifix, and have collaborated with experts to help tell its story.
The mesquite wood crucifix dates to about 1825, and measures 69 inches in height and 48.5 inches wide with the figure of Jesus measuring 41 inches in height and 42 inches wide. Oil paint covers the crucifix, which boasts a bone inset in its shins and gilded tin crown.
The dowled shoulder in the figure suggests the crucifix might have played a role in processions or other Catholic liturgies, most likely during Lent and Holy Week. The wooden cross is regarded as vintage and in fair condition, although not the original piece.
Returning the crucifix to Mexico reminds some of the 1989 Paramount Pictures film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” in which Jones retrieves an antique crucifix he intends to donate to a museum.
Esperanza Griffith, executive assistant to Bishop James Golka, Diocese of Colorado Springs, got involved with the project after receiving a Dec. 9, 2022 email from student Lindsey Gulau, who said she wants to return the 19th-century crucifix back to its Mexican community.
Gulau said Capuchin Father John Toepfer, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, provided her with Griffith’s contact information.
“Rev. Toepfer said you would be forwarding our message to the president of the bishops in Mexico. We have been wanting to connect with religious figures in Mexico to get their perspective on this project and see if they have any knowledge of where this piece might be from,” Gulau wrote.
“Please let me know what their response is and if they are interested in more information on this project, I can send that your way as well. Also, if there is anyone else you think would be interested in helping us or just giving their insight as we move forward with this, please let me know so I can reach out to them.”
In her Dec. 14 email, Griffith, who speaks several languages, Spanish among them, asked Gulau to provide additional information so she could make her communications with someone in Mexico more productive.
After Griffith received the information, she contacted Dr. Juan Carlos Casa Garcia, the priest who heads the Department of History and Art for the Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano (Mexican Bishop’s Conference, or CEM).
On Feb. 6, Griffith told Gulau she would forward the email she sent and subsequent response from Father Casa Garcia, along with a translation.
“The next set of communication I had is that the piece will be on display at the FAC and that we would be invited to the opening,” Griffith said.
Gulau informed Griffith that the piece will be on exhibit at the FAC until the end of July, and that she and community collaborators would soon receive an invitation to an opening party. The next step, Gulau wrote, was to plan to return the crucifix to Mexico.
“Right now, we are thinking that we will deaccession (officially remove) the object to the Diocese of Colorado Springs. From our research, this seems to be the best course of action for an international transfer of ownership. After it has been deaccessioned to your organization, our expectation is that you could then gift the piece to the CEM that had expressed interest in it,” Gulau wrote Griffith.
“We would love to hear your input on our proposal for this process. Would you be willing to contact the priest who is in charge of the history and art department for the CEM and get their advice as well? We look forward to continuing working with you and (hopefully) meeting you at our opening.”
Griffith and Bishop Golka attended the May 13 opening, during which they discussed the crucifix and the students’ project with Michael Christiano, the FAC’s director of Visual Arts & Museum.
“He (Christiano) would be the one we would need to work with to deaccession the object to the Diocese of Colorado Springs with the expectation that it will be returned to Mexico via the CEM,” Griffith told Gulau.
Griffith couldn’t say enough about the students’ efforts and hopes the community will visit the FAC to review the piece.
“The students did the lion’s share of work, and decided it was best to get the piece back to Mexico and not allow it to remain in the FAC. It is my hope that people will want to see it before it is returned to Mexico,” Griffith said.