Harry Downie was 28, heading south in August 1931 to open a cabinet shop in Santa Barbara when the architectural restorer stopped to visit his boyhood friend, Lawrence Ferrell, in Monterey. Ferrell introduced Downie to Monsignor Philip Scher, pastor of San Carlos Church, who asked if the young restorer might repair a few broken statues relegated to the rectory attic.
Although Downie had no plans to remain on the Peninsula, he became so engaged in his work, that he then went over the hill into Carmel to do a little restorative work on the Carmel Mission Basilica. Whether the latter project was more than he anticipated, or he simply fell in love with the place, Downie never made it to Santa Barbara.
Instead, he became the chief restoration expert for Carmel Mission San Carlos de Borromeo. For 50 years, he painstakingly worked on restoring the mission, repairing it with meticulous attention inspired by deep devotion, stopping, not once he was finished but when his life was, in March 1980. He was nearly 77.
John Billman, who will be 87 in June, not only knew Harry Downie; I have loved him. A close friend of his parents of him, Downie was his godfather of him, a constant presence in his life of him while growing up on the Peninsula, and a lingering inspiration that led Billman to write the book, “Harry Downie: A Man and His Mission.”
“I’ve written pieces in the past about Harry and the Mission, which I sold to magazines. I finally wrote a book,” said Billman, “because Harry’s story of restoring and improving Carmel Mission from abandoned ruins to an architecturally award-winning basilica, needs to be preserved.”
Driven by devotion
Growing up in a Catholic home in San Francisco, Henry John Downie became interested in the California missions as a young boy, carefully crafting models of adobe, timber, and stone structures he’d seen or studied in school. His fascination with him, paired with his religious devotion with him, led to a lifelong commitment to preserving the Carmel Mission.
In addition to his restoration of the Mission, he also spent years working to retrieve mission artifacts that had been stolen or given away during the early Mexican and American periods. Through his efforts and by working to determine where articles should be displayed at the Mission, he has assumed the title of Carmel Mission curator.
Eight years after Downie first came to Carmel, he married Mabel Francis McEldowney and built her a house in the Carmel Woods, modeled after the home of author Helen Hunt Jackson, of whose now-legendary novel, “Ramona,” he had a first edition . The stucco structure with red-tile roof, a nod to her home de ella as well as the Mission, says Billman, remains to this day yet no longer looks the same.
A year later, in 1940, the couple welcomed Miriam Frances Downie, their first of two daughters, followed by Anne Marie Downie. Although neither of her lived into her seventh decade, Miriam, whose devotion of her led her into the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael as “Sister Serra” for 10 years, reportedly kept detailed records of her father’s restoration work of her.
“Harry was a family man and a good friend,” Billman said. “He was a hardworking man and a good boss. People who worked for him said, as long as they did their job, he was satisfied. I wanted perfection. If he offered suggestions, he’d stop, glare for a moment, clamp his teeth onto his cigar and keep working. His way of him always turned out to be the best.
Reportedly, in 1980, someone burglarized the sanctuary. “Some people believe this led to Downie’s death,” said Billman. “He was so deeply devoted to his work on the Mission. It was his life from him.”
Harry Downie was named to the knighthood of St. Gregory by Pope Pius and was knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain for his efforts to restore Mission artifacts dating back to the mid-1700s.
Before writing his book, John Billman, who has lived with his wife, Dolores Caprara Billman, in Carmel Valley, Monterey, and currently in Salinas, pursued a career as a counselor at Soledad Prison.
“In midlife,” he said, “I went back to school and got my degree in journalism. With experience in working with criminal defenders and my writing skills, I became a counselor. My time at Soledad could be a story unto itself.”
Perhaps that will become Billman’s next book.
An earlier book, “Sir Harry of Carmel: A tribute to Harry Downie,” authored by Weber, Kroll, and Adomeit, and published in Monterey by Hilleary & Petko in 1978, is currently out of print. Billman’s new book, “Harry Downie: A Man and His Mission to Him,” is available on Amazon.