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)

San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark

Just south of Tucson, San Xavier del Bac Mission stands as an active church, an architectural wonder, and a testament to the Jesuit priest who founded it 300 years ago

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Everett Ruess