A Good Friday tradition continues this year when thousands of devout El Pasoans will flock to Mount Cristo Rey to climb an arduous, two-mile trail some 4,500 feet above sea level. At its peak, hikers are offered a close-up view of the largest monument to Christ in North America.
At 42 1/2 feet high, the delicately carved, ivory limestone monument of “Christ the King” sharply contrasts with the rugged terrain of the mountain. It is the work of Urbici Soler, a former faculty member at the Texas College of Mines (now The University of Texas at El Paso) who specialized in sculpting.
“I can only respect the enormity of the undertaking,” said Willie Ray Parish, a well-known local sculptor and professor emeritus of art at UTEP. “I’ve gone to around 28 or 30 feet myself a few times, but 40 feet — that’s really getting up there.”
Originally from Spain, Soler came to El Paso in 1937 after being invited to create the monument the Rev. Lourdes Costa envisioned.
For the next three years, Soler would become enamored with the massive project, which included an estimated $24,000 income and a trip to Austin’s limestone quarries to pick and choose stone to be shipped back to El Paso.
Although Soler is credited with the design and concept of the cross, more than a hundred locals from Smeltertown did much of the physical work. These laborers, or “Esmeltianos,” leveled the mountain’s peak and blasted roads so the limestone could be hauled to its final destination upon its arrival in 1938.
“That monument was built by El Paso, for El Paso — by our very own people’s blood, sweat and tears,” said Ruben Escandon, spokesman for the Mount Cristo Rey Committee, whose own parents and grandparents “labored long and hard” on the mountain, he said.
After the Esmeltianos carved out a 26-foot depression, Soler proceeded to meticulously carve from sunrise to sunset for the next several months with an assortment of 50 distinctive chisels.
“Carving limestone is a very laborious process,” said Parish, who prefers to work with steel and assumes “Urbi” was an extremely patient man. “I only worked with it enough myself to understand that I wasn’t interested in the material because it’s too slow and painstaking.”
Soler’s endeavor was somewhat sped up by the use of an air hammer, or pneumatic chisel, that uses air pressure to hammer away about 200 times a minute, rather than 15 or 20 times.
However, for Christ’s face, Soler desired absolute perfection and has been quoted as saying, “I work on the face only late in the afternoon or early in the morning, when the sun is low. Then the lighting is most beautiful. The face must be peaceful. It must look down on El Paso with a peaceful expression. It must radiate peace in a world of war and hate.”
Though dedicated in 1939, the sculptor officially completed the statue in 1940 and decided to stay in El Paso permanently.
“He considered it his best work and loved the weather and people of El Paso,” said Escandon, who has passed down much of Mount Cristo Rey’s history from his family. “So he wanted to stay close to it. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard.”
Five years after completing the monument, Soler applied to teach at the College of Mines, where he was met with some resistance due to his lack of a master’s degree. According to the book Roaming Around the World with Urbici Soler by UTEP alumnus Paul Daniggelis, the sculptor responded lividly by turning, pointing at Mount Cristo Rey and asking “if any master’s graduate in the U.S. was capable of an equivalent grade on their thesis.”
With those remarks, Soler was hired as an instructor of art. He offered the University’s very first sculpting course, and became close friends with distinguished instructors Carl Hertzog and Tom Lea. Eventually, he became an assistant professor.
The famous sculptor died in 1953 at the age of 62. Although he is remembered most for “Christ the King,” many of his pieces remain on campus in UTEP’s Special Collections department.
Nadia M. Whitehead is a former writer for UTEP’s University Communications office.
Nadia M. Whitehead is a former writer for UTEP's University Communications office.