Angels of Mission San Jose

Have I told you the story of the special, new angel at Mission San Jose?
Heavens, you must be the only one.
Quick, can you name three Angels? They are, for the most part, mysterious spirits unaccustomed to identifying themselves.
Well, here are three (not Charlie’s Angels) who spring to my mind: Gabriel, the Mormon angel Moroni and Nguyen Van Huu.
Who? That’s right. Huu, pronounced who-o.
Huu, in real life, is one of the artists responsible for the re-creation of the Franciscan missionary period art inside Mission San Jose in Fremont.
I first met Huu in 1984 at his Mission Carmel workshop. At the time, Huu was painting the six cherubs on the face of the altar destined for Mission San Jose.
In the Carmel workshop, Huu and mission curator Richard Menn showed me what was, up to then, a secret.
While the original cherubs had light hair and rosy faces, one would be different on the Mission San Jose altar.
”That’s me,” said Huu, pointing to the cherub on the far right. That angel had dark hair and the skin color of an Asian face. ”Like me,” Huu said, pointing to his own face.
Huu and Menn explained that in the tradition of Michelangelo, Raphael, Renoir and Picasso, Huu had literally put himself into his work.
It was a long way for Huu from war in Vietnam to restoration in California.
Huu escaped from communist Vietnam in 1977, two years after the fall of the South Vietnamese government and just after graduation from high school.
Huu is a Catholic, and a church organization sponsored him and his family. At first, he lived in Connecticut but soon moved his family to the warmth of California. The church found a job for him as a gardener and handyman at Mission Carmel. He met Menn at the mission and soon was helping out in the workshop.
”He started to repair things and he showed a great aptitude. He has a natural feeling for color and form,” Menn told me.
Huu became the assistant curator, working on the restoration of seven of California’s 21 missions.
In 1984, Huu and another artist, Do Dong Hong, came to Mission San Jose, where they painted the traditional neo-classic columns and balconies in the mission. They also installed the altar and its decorative backdrop, the pulpit, side altars, paintings and mirrors, all duplicates of the originals, which Menn and Huu designed using information from mission archives.
Huu told me he was proud to be restoring the history of his new country.
”It’s something I can leave for my children and grandchildren,” he said.
Dolores Ferenz, the mission secretary, said some of the tour guides point out the Asian angel when they take groups to the altar.
”Some don’t know about it,” she said.
When she conducts a rare tour, she always points to the angel.
”They’re always interested in it and want to see it up close. It’s an interesting touch,” she said.
Huu said he has a dream that some time around the turn of the century he will march his grandchildren up to the altar at Mission San Jose, point to the Asian angel and tell them, ”That’s me.”


About drockstroh

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