The Todos Santos complex is located in the heart of Cuenca, Ecuador, deep within the Tomebamba River Valley. It comprises the magnificent Church of Todos Santos (or the Church of All Saints), an adjacent nineteenth-century convent, a working garden, and small shops and eateries. The church was built as the Spanish Empire began its relentless seizure of large territories in South America. For centuries, the native people of Cuenca had followed the rituals and traditions of the ancient Incans. Under colonial Spanish rule, they were forced to abandon their spiritual practices and convert to Catholicism, the religion of the conquistadors. The first Catholic mass was celebrated at the Todos Santos Church in 1540.
The Church of Todos Santos intertwines Spanish architecture and traditional building materials of the Cuenca region. This is seen in the contrast between the Gothic motifs of the façade and the materials used for its construction, which include adobe mud-brick and bahareque. Bahareque is a mixture of sugar cane, straw, and clay that was originally employed by the Cañari, an indigenous ethnic group that pre-dates the Incas.
A new and sustainable future
The Todos Santos complex was included on the World Monuments Watch in 2010. By this time, natural aging had deteriorated the buildings and rendered their potentially usable space vacant. In a terrible blow, a disastrous fire destroyed 10% of the historic church in 2006. In cooperation with the Conservatecuador Foundation and the Municipality of Cuenca, we began work at the Todos Santos complex in 2010. The city undertook the restoration of the church and its decorative murals, while we supported the restoration of the convent’s underutilized areas and their transformation into a café, bakery, restaurant, and gift shop. We also helped rescue the church’s large rear garden, where local herbs and organic fruits and vegetables have now been planted. The garden’s bounty supplies the popular Todos Santos restaurant, and the bakery’s historic wood-burning oven, a lost tradition recovered in the conservation project, draws customers from all over the city. The income made at the complex supports the nuns’ school, which serves 500 underprivileged children. In addition, eleven new jobs have been created through the commercial endeavors at Todos Santos, and architecture and hospitality students from the local university collaborate with the nuns in matters of restoration and business. The Los Todas project, completed in 2012, was funded with major support from the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage and additional resources from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.
To visit the Todos Santos complex today is to see an active church restored to its former grandeur and profitable small businesses that attract thousands of tourists annually. The complex is an excellent example of how conservation can create a sustainable local economy and reintroduce traditional customs. The combination benefits both the community and the steady stream of visitors who appreciate this microcosm of Ecuadorean history, culture, and local industry.