Years ago, before the inclusion of the religious complex of Todosantos in the 2010 World Monuments Watch “nobody knew Todosantos, but now everybody wants to visit it,” said Ramiro Endara, Executive Director of Conservartecuador, the preservation group that advocated for the site and guided my visit at the end of 2012. From the exterior, the complex looked quite different than it did in 2009 when I first visited the city of Cuenca in Ecuador. The walls along Calle Larga, one of the oldest streets in town, are beautifully whitewashed, and the scaffolding that obscured the main façade and towers is now gone. Instead, a large canvas sign announced a “10K race for patrimony” organized by Elizabeth Ochoa, a nun from the Oblatas congregation which since the early 1900s have occupied the complex. Sister Elizabeth has a master’s degree in tourism, and her goal was to raise public awareness and funds to complete the restoration of their convent and celebrate the thirteenth anniversary of the inscription of the Historic Center of Cuenca in the UNESCO World Heritage List, on December 1, 1999.
Sisters Alba, Patricia, Norma, Elizabeth, and Marlene are some of the nuns who live in Todosantos and run the Sacred Heart Catholic school located next door, where over 1,500 students get a first-rate education for little money. The founding nuns, inspired by Father Matovelle almost 120 years ago, left their wealthy homes to teach indigenous girls for free, a rebellious act that cost them their inheritance and forced them to bake bread and make wine to earn their living and maintain the school.
The Todosantos bakery was famous in the city and the smell of fresh bread, quesadillas, and sweet suspiros characterized the neighborhood for decades, until the mid–twentieth century when the old wood-burning oven stopped working due to the deterioration of the adobe and bahareque structure that housed it. After almost 50 years of inactivity, thanks to the support of World Monuments Fund and the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Oblatas’ oven works again and several of the dilapidated spaces in the convent have been painstakingly restored and turned into a restaurant, wine cava, and crafts store, which became an instant success among tourists and Cuencanos alike.
The rear garden facing the Tomebamba River, which at the time of my previous visit was an impassable jungle, is now a manicured and well-tended native garden, where the stone terraces built by the ancient Cañaris (Pre-Inca culture of Ecuador) are visible again and provide a backdrop and support for walkways and planting beds filled with oregano, cedrón, dill, cilantro, celery, and colorful flowers. Even the centenary oak trees were structurally stabilized using an innovative technique imported from Germany.
The eighteenth-century church was restored by the municipality, and the decorative interior painting that was obscured by whitewash for decades has been exposed and conserved, the tower stairs were repaired to provide safe access to one of the best views of the city and the river, and several archaeological remains such as a Cañari burial and a colonial canal, discovered during the restoration work, was exposed to view when the church reopened its doors in 2013.
However, the nun’s living quarters are still in need of restoration and another section of the convent is in precarious condition, especially due to leaks in the roof. The long-term plan is to restore this section as a hostel, which together with the other commercial spaces, garden, and terraces will provide a sustainable source of income for the nuns and for the maintenance of the complex.
The nuns expressed their appreciation to WMF and the restoration team with a song and dance performance by the children from the Sacred Heart school and by feeding us bread and sweets made in the restored oven. After many heartfelt hugs and good byes, I went to the airport where I noticed a large poster with a drawing of Todosantos inviting the travelers to visit “Cuenca, a whole world of history.” Indeed, as a result of the restoration work, the delicious bread, the promotional races, and the airport sign, it is quite possible that now “everybody wants to visit Todosantos.”