Located nine miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, off Interstate 19, San Xavier del Bac is on San Xavier Road, just three miles southwest of Mission View RV Resort, our home base for exploring Tucson and regions south.
One of the oldest and best-preserved Spanish Colonial missions in the United States, its stark white walls and ornate baroque façade dazzle above the flat desert for many miles. Often called the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission is one of eight missions established in Arizona when the Spanish ruled the area.
Rising out of a sage-filled prairie that seemed to go to the end of the Earth—or at least to Mexico—I didn’t need road signs to guide my toad toward the church.
I explored the beautiful courtyard. Seven graceful arches surround a patio and a fountain once fed by natural springs that probably refreshed horses carrying church-goers.
The Catholic mission was founded in 1692 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino and its remarkable building—now a National Historic Landmark—was added roughly 100 years later by Franciscan monks following the Jesuits’ expulsion from the territory. Original plans for San Xavier were for the mission to be the center of a larger system with a dual purpose of providing religious services and educational programs to the native people. This explains the comfortable historic meeting rooms neighboring the church that were built for larger groups to gather.
Construction of the mission began in 1783 and came to an end in 1797, a remarkable endeavor considering the lack of resources in the area. Enduring wars, an earthquake, and harsh elements from the environment, the mission is in remarkable condition as a result of the loving care of the local Tohono O’odham American Indian tribe and is considered the most significant relic north of Mexico.
The Spanish Colonial architectural style is clear with white stucco walls and stunning three-story bell towers shouldering a baroque entryway enhanced with Franciscan reliefs. There is clearly a difference between the twin towers as one appears to be under renovation with parts on the top missing. The visitor quickly assumes the tower is being repaired, but that is not the case.
The tower has always looked as it does today and the reason remains a mystery. Old bookkeeping records suggest that taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, and, therefore, the church remained unfinished. Another legend is that the tower has been left in this state until the “Excellent Builder” comes to complete the mission.
On this hot, sunny day, the coolness of the interior was a surprise. The air conditioning available is supplied by nature through intelligent design and expert choice of building materials.
The next surprise comes when my eyes adjust to the darkness and my breath is taken away by the beauty and quality of this mission.
The entire structure is roofed with masonry vault making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U.S. borders. Little is known about the people who created the artwork that covers almost every square inch inside, including the ceiling. Some believe that artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico) were probably commissioned by the Spanish royal family.
The main gold and red altar is decorated in Mexican baroque style. Its elaborate columns were built in guild workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta valley to the mission.
Research has proven that more than 50 statues were carved in Mexico then transported hundreds of miles to be gilded by local American Indian artists before installation. Once the sculptures were in place, area craftsmen—some of them ancestors of the mission’s current restoration workers and caretakers—added clothing created from gesso.
After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, San Xavier del Bac became the property of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan friar departed shortly thereafter and the mission lost all funds with which to maintain the facilities. The Tohono O’odham did what they could, operating a school for many years and protecting the mission from Apache raids.
In 1854, the United States purchased the area with the Gadsden Purchase and San Xavier once again became a Catholic-held entity under the Diocese of Santa Fe.
Many more transitions of ownership followed including a time when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school for Tohono O’odham children. Within my generation, the mission became a nonprofit entity, supported partially by the Catholic Church. Mass is still held every weekend and is open to the public.
Throughout these years, only basic care was performed to prevent the daily decay of the massive ornate interior and its thousands of artifacts and art pieces. Wood was used in most of the carvings which swells and shrinks from variations of climate and humidity. In order to clean the artwork and walls, a special mixed cleaner must be used sparingly and carefully to remove grime without removing paint. Paints were made of natural materials which are almost impossible to replicate today, and fade with time.
Most of the restoration and maintenance work was done inside the church, sometimes on bended knees or lying on the floor. It is excruciating and exhausting work.
Yet, one tower remains unfinished.
Still an active church, San Xavier del Bac Mission retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious and educational needs of parishioners. The church and gift shop are open daily.
Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.