Father Kino: A Legendary Figure who Founded 8 Missions in Southern Arizona

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a 17th-century Jesuit priest founded 21 missions in what is now Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona

Born Eusebio Chini (the Spanish version of his last name is Kino) to a noble family in Italy, Father Kino became a legendary figure during his era in the New World.

After surviving a serious illness young in life, he thanked God by adopting Francisco as a second name in honor and devotion to St. Francis Xavier. He vowed to become a priest and dreamed of missionary work in China. He became a well-educated mathematician and cartographer, often teaching math and science during his training to receive Holy Orders and be ordained as a priest.

However, his first mission was to lead an expedition to Baja, California, controlled by New Spain, to create maps. Kino is attributed with proving that the area was a peninsula, not an island. Later, he was commissioned to convert the natives living along the Rio Grande to Catholicism.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soon Padre Kino had a strong following among the tribes, but he didn’t just focus on conversion. Nicknamed the Padre on Horseback, he traversed the unfriendly territory to help the lives of the American Indians. Father Kino worked hard to oppose forced labor on the native people by the Spanish in the silver mines.

Contrary to his fellow priests who followed Spanish law, Father Kino was considered a rebel whom the indigenous people trusted. He gained fame as a peacekeeper among the people, homesteaders, and governments.

Father Kino possessed many other interests as well such as astronomy and became a prolific writer, authoring books on many subjects—including religion. As he traversed the territory, he drew numerous maps including the sky. Father Kino was instrumental in the Vatican establishing one of the largest telescopes in North America near Tucson, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) at Mount Graham International Observatory.

Father Kino spent the last 24 years of his life in the Pimeria Alta—modern-day Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona. He established 21 missions and country chapels, many at the request of the local tribes as they slowly felt safe enough to build villages and farms close to the missions. With a stable food source, the tribes began to recover from the brutality and discrimination they endured from the influx of foreigners to their land. Thus, Father Kino is still honored and loved today.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dying of a fever at the age of 65, Kino was buried in a shrine designated a National Monument of Mexico, located in the present-day town of Magdalena de Kino in Sonora. His funeral was attended by dignitaries from Mexico City and the local area.

The unveiling of a Padre Kino postage stamp and presentation of his original travel diary was held in March of 2011. The United States Capitol displays a life-size statue from every state of a person who was chosen to portray the state’s heritage and beliefs. Arizona chose Father Kino.

Last year Pope Francis approved that Father Kino be declared a venerable person which is two steps away from sainthood. The pope’s formal approval recognized Kino’s life of “heroic virtue,” said Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

“Padre Kino is especially recognized as an extraordinary example of evangelization, science, and respect for the dignity of the poor,” wrote Weisenburger in an email to parishioners.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bishop said since Kino was a member of the Jesuit order with provincial headquarters in Trent, Italy, the joyous announcement affects the people of Trent and also the “faithful of the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, Mexico, the Catholic peoples of Arizona, and all who recognize the holy life of Venerable Padre Kino.”

“For Kino to be advanced to the next stage of the canonization process a miracle attributed to him is necessary. The faithful are encouraged to seek his intervention in time of need,” Weisenburger said.

In March 2011, descendants of Kino from Italy gathered outdoors in front of Mission San José de Tumacácori south of Tucson to celebrate a tricentennial commemorative Mass of Kino’s death. His visible skeletal remains are in a crypt at La Plaza Monumental, about 50 yards from María Magdalena Church.

The Tumacácori mission was established by Kino in 1691 but later built under Franciscan missionaries. In 1700, Kino laid the foundation for a mission at the village of Bac on the Santa Cruz River near Tucson. Mission San Xavier del Bac—also known as the White Dove of the Desert—was completed in 1797 also by Franciscan missionaries.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I am happy to hear the news about Padre Kino being declared venerable because we have been waiting for this announcement since 2016,” said Rosie Garcia, president and founding board member of the Kino Heritage Society.

“Padre Kino was a missionary who brought Christianity to Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona. He was an advocate for social justice and he certainly deserves this honor,” she said of the sainthood process.

“His legacy lives on,” said Garcia. “We see it today in the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, a Jesuit-run shelter and an advocacy center for migrants. Truly, Padre Kino was meant to be a man for all seasons and for all ages.” She said the process to canonize Kino began in the 1960s and it started in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Manny Martinez, a Tohono O’odham Nation member who works closely with O’odham at Mission San Xavier del Bac, said Kino was “an ally to tribal peoples of this area. According to his writings and what we know about him, he worked to be a bridge between Native Americans’ spirituality and the Catholic faith.”

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“He went beyond the European’s perceptions of native people at that time and he really saw us as people of the creator. He validated the first people of this land,” said Martinez. “His journey to sainthood would put him in a league of other Catholic saints who spoke up for those who did not have a voice,” he said.

Big Jim Griffith, a well-known local folklorist and a founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, reminds us that we honor Padre Kino’s legacy every time we enjoy carne asada since the padre introduced wheat and beef in the late 17th century into the area.

Worth Pondering…

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.

—Basil of Caesarea, Ancient Greek theologian (330-379)