Empty Spain no longer waits for anyone to save its churches

The silent cry of depopulated Spain begins to be heard. That rumor, increasingly evident, comes from the most remote and forgotten places of the national geography. The neighbors —the last guardians of the reviled rural life— have grown tired of the political verbiage that promises a future of hope that, because it is future time, simply never arrives. Cases of Villamoron in Burgos, The Barbolla in Soria either A castle in Zaragoza they are ceasing to be colorful notes in the media to become a revolution to life or death. "For a town, the church is everything; if the church falls, it seems that the town is over." The words of José Luis Corralejo —president of a neighborhood council of just ten neighbors that has obtained more than 300,000 euros to save the church of Fuenteodra (Burgos)— can be seen as a true war cry. A fight to continue existing.

The striking case of Fuenteodra, a minor local entity that was left in the bones in the sixties and seventies, began a couple of decades ago. The pattern, although usual, never ceases to amaze. The Archbishopric of Burgos collected the belongings of a temple no longer worshiped and in danger of collapsing, and took them to the Altarpiece Museum in the capital, which today shows off the altar of the late Gothic building as a piece of interest. So there were no protests. There was no one to protest. Fuenteodra had been left alone, without neighbors, without parishioners. Given the harsh rural conditions, they had begun to parade. "The first thing I would ask is that the people who are here could live a little better; many times you work and work and you don't even have enough to live on, it's normal for people to leave," summarizes Corralejo, rancher and farmer, one of the scarce eight people who stay to see what happens in the icy winter of Burgos.

The state of the church, an imposing late Gothic temple from the end of the 15th century located on a promontory, began to emit emergency signals. Even so, the temple of San Lorenzo Mártir had won the repair of the roof that would prevent a more than certain collapse. But Fuenteodra took pride. The spark jumped when a technician went to the town to explain to the neighbors why the church would not be repaired. "No wonder we were left out, the architect had no idea what he was saying." Javier Maisterra, responsible for a rural house next to the religious building, amended the plan before the small audience and, involuntarily, he applied to lead the neighborhood movement that tried to avoid the disaster.

But there was more. The Manapites cultural association, which emerged from the fed up of the inhabitants of Fuenteodra, met with the vicar of the Archbishopric of Burgos, who denied any hope of recovering the building. The neighborhood got the feeling that the collapse of San Lorenzo Mártir would have been the most convenient news for the interests of the Church. Instead, Fuenteodra promised himself that as long as the striking late-Gothic vaults remained meters above the ground, there would be hope to fight to reverse the problem. And then the revolution began.

Fuenteodra did not intend to put patches, but to bring the monumental church as close as possible to its original splendor. Hence, he had to think big. "Since we had to face a great evil, we had to hire some great architects, exactly like those who promoted this church in the fifteenth century." Javier Maisterra, an engineer by profession, narrates the rescue process, which he began by adopting a transcendental decision advised by the technical team. As in the great Spanish monuments, the number of decisions that would have to be made over several years and on different fronts made it necessary to create a "master plan". A document, Maisterra describes, to "consolidate, restore and rehabilitate the building for society".

Along the way, the project seduced a good number of heritage lovers and supporters of the cause. And the challenge was enormous: save a building that not even the neighbors owned. "We saw the ad on Instagram and decided to collaborate." The art historian Elena Paulino Montero explains how a couple of years ago, Fuenteodra sent a publication on social networks to involve a group of experts to investigate in depth the church of San Lorenzo, and do what no one has done until now, a study historical-artistic. Even so, Elena Paulino's support at the head of a dozen specialists is not the most striking thing, but rather the reason why they decided to join. "Almost all of us are university professors and there is always the question that we are disconnected from society; here we had the opportunity to get involved in a very clear cause, of social and patrimonial involvement," she reveals.

At the time, the nascent study of the temple revealed a more than evident reality. San Lorenzo Mártir had slipped into the 21st century through the back door, barely making a sound. "It was one of the aspects that most caught our attention; it is still strange that no one had studied a temple like this until now, which does not even appear in the monumental catalogs that began to be drawn up at the beginning of the 20th century," acknowledges the specialist. The complicated access, out of hand from everything, might be the explanation.

While Elena Paulino and other experts from the Complutense, Autonomous University of Madrid, Isabel I of Burgos or the UNED began the study, the residents of Fuenteodra achieved their first advances. Where was the key to a budding success? "In the cool message," Maisterra replies. The neighbors had chosen to avoid complaining — "we didn't want to fall into the typical 20th century story of protesting and asking to have everything done" — and "we decided to be proactive and go for it." This is how they carried out a first crowdfunding campaign (with a collection of 52,000 euros), they won a direct grant of 92,000 euros from the Junta de Castilla y León to ensure that the building made it through the winter and they agreed, this time, to the agreement to repair the roof and fix leaks.

The case is still picturesque. Maisterra underlines the fact that a town of barely ten inhabitants had gained the confidence of the Board to undertake the rescue. "They gave us the money to plan and carry out the restoration work on the property... of another owner," he emphasizes. But there is more. The most difficult face to understand was in the so-called "leaks agreement". Fuenteodra received 128,500 euros to correct the leaks, where the Burgos Provincial Council and the Archbishopric contributed 70% of the financing. "If there hadn't been some guys who can handle everything, like us, who can think that a local entity with an annual allocation of 4,500 euros can contribute the remaining 30%?" asks the head of the cultural association. For Maisterra, the lesson is clear: in Spain there is a first class heritage and a second class heritage. And what is even more terrible. "The small municipalities, those that predominate in Castilla y León, are doomed to lose their heritage," says the engineer.

Meanwhile, the team of historians discovered San Lorenzo Mártir or, as it has become popular on social networks, the "lady of Las Loras", in the presence of the Burgos geopark that surrounds the area. "We were struck by the large size of the church for the place where it is, its outstanding position in the landscape and the fact that the original plaster from various periods is found on the walls," Elena Paulino describes. A separate question is the star element of its architecture, those vaults that heritage lovers fall in love with. "Fuenteodra has a catalog of vaults that responds to what is happening in the late Gothic period, between Burgos and Palencia", highlights the art historian. An element that refers to great examples of the time, such as the Miraflores Charterhouse or the Chapel of the Visitation of Burgos Cathedral. "There is an interest in providing this church with models of prestige that are found in other monuments," she adds, without being able to reveal the reason.

Conclusions that were not easy to draw. The specialist recalls how the first field visits were carried out to gather information and document the building. "When we arrived and saw the state of conservation, we threw our hands in our heads," recalls Elena Paulino. In fact, some members of the expedition decided not to access the interior fearing a possible collapse of the structure. "When the snowfalls of the storm Filomena [enero de 2021]we really thought that the temple would collapse and we were afraid to find the news any day," he acknowledges.

The residents of Fuenteodra acknowledge that, if the Junta de Castilla y León had restored the church without there being a social interest in its use, the problem would be the same: letting time pass until we see how conservation difficulties come again. So the promoters of the restoration were clear from the beginning about the future role of San Lorenzo. On the one hand, they see fit to turn "la dama" into an associated headquarters of the Las Loras Geopark, a place to discover and interpret a geological landscape endorsed by UNESCO. But it is not all. "The church must be available for any need of the residents of the area: we can celebrate a market of craft products, concerts, family events...". Ultimately, Javier Maisterra is only pointing to the role that our temples originally played: to become the center of social life.

And they are on their way to achieving it. A second crowdfunding campaign that ends at the beginning of September has already managed to raise more than 40,000 euros, with contributions of up to 10,000 euros. Necessary money that will make it possible to settle the much-needed work of consolidating the building and definitively abandon the famous Red List of the Hispania Nostra association. "People did not expect that all this would be achieved, it has caught us a bit by surprise", acknowledges José Luis Corralejo on behalf of the neighbors. The president of the board trusts that the achievement, together with the popularization of the geopark, will allow "achieving more things" in the future.

"That of Fuenteodra is one more case in empty Spain, where there is an enormous challenge to preserve heritage. But it is a case that is being exemplary and that gives us hope," proclaims historian Elena Paulino. Exemplary and almost unique, because every circumstance against it has played in favor of his recovery. The removal of the liturgical furniture — "they did not leave a single cross," emphasize the neighbors — has stripped the beauty of the temple's scars. Thus, crossed by a ray of natural light, it shines in the exceptional photography by Fernando Manso that recalls the romantic vision of the lithographs with which Francisco Javier Parcerisa illustrated the volumes of Memorias y beauties de España. They are wounds, but not of surrender, but of the hope of being able to return to the splendid fifteenth century that saw the birth of this "lady" of heritage.

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