FATHER CRESPI

Father Crespi    Ecuador

The guidebook recommends the museum of Padre Crespi in a small town outside Cuenca, a lovely colonial city in southern Ecuador.  I enter and an assistant takes me to a sick old man, his long black robes dulled by dust and remnants of food and drink.  His eyes widen and crinkle with pleasure.  Bent over and stiff, he unlocks his storeroom and leads me around the messy warehouse, pointing out various treasures.  “This collection is worth more than the crown jewels of England,” he asserts.
I examine a chipped plaster painted saint.  “This dates back to the earliest Spanish settlement here.  And this is an ancient Inca god.”  The sheet tin figure has jeweled eyes of glass, cracked and coming unglued. Beside it stands a metallic painted wood god.  “This was cast bronze from a thousand years ago, at the height of Inca power.”
Spider webs and dust fill unlit corners.  None of the objects has a sign attached but the padre has stories to fill my half hour.  To one item after another he gestures with a flourish of his large hand.  I study his eyes and wonder if his sight failed long ago, if rogues sold him all this at high prices. I’ve only seen a small fraction of the stored items, but all are obvious fakes.
I am awed by the enormity of the old man’s delusion, a trite tale of broken dreams.  Is he a man sunk to being a laughing stock, the subject of gossip?  Or, could he know these are all fakes?  No, the smell of his breath, his defeated eyes, told me he is just a pathetic old priest, host of the hoax of the Andes, the joke from the jungle.
A week later, I’m on a bus coming up from the lowland town of Macas when an American missionary family climbs aboard.  I am happy to hold their son on my lap while we talk.  I ask what they know about Crespi.
After seeing his collections, they were as curious as I am.  Jean, the wife, found out from a local woman who is about 40 that he is an Italian count from a wealthy family.  He was already old when the woman was a child.  As long as anyone remembers, he’s been absent-minded and utterly selfless.
Once, people got together and had a new habit made for him.  When they presented it, he said, “Give it to someone needy.”  He went on in his tattered unwashed clothes, much to the disgust of the other priests who ostracize him for his eccentricities.  Another time, when he was walking in a procession, one of his shoes fell off and he went on without it, apparently oblivious.   They say he was married and had a son who died.  His wife became a nun and, for decades after they parted, he worked with the jungle Indians.
Apparently, at one time, he did have a collection of fantastic things.  A fire in 1963 destroyed the building and its contents.  He had already given away most of the authentic items to public museums and had copies made to keep, so some of those copies are on view now and he may have forgotten their real histories.  Who made the tin and plaster stage props remains obscure.
The people who love him don’t care.  In the municipal museum in Cuenca you can hold in your hands an authentic book printed here in 1682.  It doesn’t matter to his defenders that Crespi is confused.  He is said to be over a  hundred years old. Many believe he is a saint. All agree, he’s always been peculiar. He gave away huge huge fortune decades ago and some have not forgotten that generosity.

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