Restoration Man

When a church finds itself in need of a little resurrecting, who is it likely to turn to? Antonio Loro, Houston's conservator of the sacred.

It was a hopeless scene. On a midsummer morning in 1995, a rundown Sixth Ward neighborhood was filled with the floating gray particles that only a fire brings. At 1505 Kane, the parishioners of St. Joseph's Catholic Church stood on the sidewalk and wept at what they saw. Their church, a red building with elegantly corbeled brickwork whose cornerstone had been set in place almost a century before, lay in near ruin before them. Hours before the ash-filled air brought a crowd, a faulty wire had snapped, sparked and lit St. Joseph's on fire. The flames had been hot and quick, eating up the pipe organ in the choir loft, the newly refinished pine boards on the main floor, the ornately detailed plaster columns in the nave, and licking everything else with soot and char. By the time anyone knew what was happening, smoke was billowing out of the church's 93-year-old rose windows and was well on its way through the marble altars and the Stations of the Cross.

The fire burned through the building, eating the history of whatever it touched. When all was said and done, after the firefighters had soaked the ashes, after the air had cooled enough to assess the damage, what was left looked like utter destruction. As St. Joseph's congregants stood in shock over the rubble, wondering how this could have happened, and wondering at the same time what could now be done, a car pulled up and a man got out. With his kind face and somber black clothing, he might have been a priest. He wasn't. His name was Antonio Loro, and sitting at home he had watched the news of what happened on his television. He searched out Father Joseph Doyle, the clergyman in charge of St. Joseph's, to give him a message of hope. He had seen this sort of thing before, Loro said, and he knew all was not lost. What had been taken from St. Joseph's by the flames could be restored. Salvation was possible. And Loro knew this for a simple reason: He was the man who could do the saving.

Ask almost anyone in America -- anyone in a position to know, that is -- to suggest a private conservator who has a special gift for restoring churches, and the name likely to be at or near the top of that list is Antonio Loro. Though Father Doyle wasn't really processing what Loro was telling him that sad day two years ago -- that there was a way to salvage most of St. Joseph's artifacts, many of which had been tossed out of the church and into still-smoking rubble -- someone who understood the enormity of the work to be done would call on Loro later. Fretz Construction, the Houston church builder hired to repair St. Joseph's infrastructure, contracted him a few months after the fire to restore what they couldn't.

They were simply the latest in a line of people who have turned to Loro to heal what seemed to be doomed objects. By the time he was asked to help resurrect parts of St. Joseph's, he had already restored various elements of seven other Catholic churches. Though religious icons are not the only items Loro turns his conservator's craft toward, he's one of a relative handful of conservators in the country with sacred objects as a specialty. In an obscure profession that offers little recognition, Loro has made quite a name for himself in the business of restoring churches. As a result, Loro's name and reputation often resonate outside Houston with a solemn kind of reverence. When desperate priests call around to find a conservator to restore everything from their parish statuary to the gold leaf on their confessional screens, they're told by other priests to call Loro.

It's a sometimes ironic position for a man whose own paintings hang in international collections, who taught art at the university level and who has frequently been commissioned to paint extravagantly sized murals, such as the one he completed last year at the Assumption Catholic Church on Roselane. He is, perhaps surprisingly given his stern working expression and his careful gestures, a gentleman with an easy laugh. Italian by birth and Argentinean by merit of his family's flight from Europe following World War II, Loro learned the conservator's trade from his father, who had learned it from Antonio's grandfather. The youngest Loro, a fair-skinned, blond boy, grew up in the family business, learning secret formulas for cleansing solutions and the proper techniques for using the restorer's box of tiny tools: scalpels, agate stone, Japanese rice paper and cotton swabs. Though he recognized his son had artistic talent, Antonio's father, wary of the postwar economy, insisted that his son not depend on art to support himself but learn the conservator's trade as a way to make a living. The duality has both haunted and amused Loro his entire life -- his logical, scientific side fed by his conservation work, his more private, passionate side barely satisfied by the paintings he completes in moments stolen from his business. As a young man, after earning recognition in gallery shows and museums across Latin America and founding an art school in Puerto Rico, he moved to the U.S. to study at a university and gain the credentials required to practice the conservator's craft in America -- a doctorate in art science, which includes a significant amount of chemistry course work. Finally, 15 years ago, he moved to Houston, in part because he thought the population would speak Spanish. He worked in an art gallery for a year, learning English well enough to open his own art school and finally, his restoration and appraisal business.

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