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San Xavier del Bac Mission a Padre Kino Tucson Arizona Treasure

Updated on January 16, 2017
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I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

San Xavier Mission

San Xavier del Bac Mission Hand Colored Postcard Circa 1910
San Xavier del Bac Mission Hand Colored Postcard Circa 1910 | Source

Importance of San Xavier Mission

Since I write and lecture on Arizona History, people often ask me, "If I only had two days or one week to spend in Arizona, what should I see?" My first suggestion, without a moment's hesitation would be The Grand Canyon, but my number two place to visit would be the San Xavier Mission located nine miles south of downtown Tucson on the Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) reservation. While volumes have been written devoted to exploring the Grand Canyon from every vantage point, not as much information has been written about the importance of the San Xavier Mission.

Padre Eusebio Kino, a Catholic priest, arrived in Mexico in 1681. By 1687, Padre Kino was assigned to help Padre Jose de Aguilar in the area which was then the northern section of the Mexican state of Sonora and is now Southern Arizona. Once established, Kino worked hard to form a congenial relationship between the Spaniards and the Native peoples he served. Kino had a Divine purpose, but his ability to introduce various grains and vegetable crops and his skills with cattle, goats and sheep won the respect of the Native people. For a time, Padre Kino taught Christian doctrine and lived at Bac near the Santa Cruz River which was his northern most congregation. Kino desired to build a church in honor of his patron St. Francis Xavier. The foundation for a church was established, but Kino was called to leave the area on other explorations.

For a time, trouble with the Pima, Apache and Papago (Now the Tohono O'odham) forced the Spaniards and priests out of the area, but then Franciscan priests were sent from Spain, and the construction of the San Xavier Mission was begun around 1783. Father Juan Bautista Velderrain, who is believed to have been the brother of one of the Spanish Captains at the Tubac Presidio, borrowed money for the construction. The construction was finished under Father Juan Bautista Llorenz after the death of Velderrain.

Several different elements of design were combined, and the mission has Byzantine, Spanish, Baroque and Native American influences. San Xavier is a cruciform church, meaning that the building has the shape of a cross. The architect remains an unknown, but according to some sources, it may have been Pedro Bojorquez who carved his name above the sacristy door in 1797. The church foundation was created of cemented stones and the walls were constructed from burnt adobe bricks with molded brick cornices. The thick adobe walls served to shield the rays of the desert sun in summer. It's often been said that San Xavier was built in the desert to create a place for the people of the desert to worship. Since timber was so scarce in the desert, only the window frames, doorways, the three exterior balconies and a few interior details are built of wood. At first impression, some details that appear like wood are actually molded adobe brick covered with stucco and plaster. The roof line appears as a series of domes. The outer walls were and are now coated with a white lime plaster which looks spectacular against the stark landscape and the deep blue Arizona sky. Because of the white brilliance, San Xavier was nicknamed The White Dove of the Desert.

The interior of the church featured a high alter in the sanctuary that was adorned with images of St. Xavier and the Virgin Mary is surrounded by angels and cherubs. Gold paint created the illusion that the alter was lined with gold. The chapel to the left of the alter is the Gospel Chapel which features the Passion of Jesus and St. Joseph. The chapel to the right is the Epistle Chapel and is dedicated to Our Mother of Sorrows. Almost all of the interior white plaster walls are covered with painted religious images. There are 32 religious statues. The floor was originally a lime plaster.

Many legends have existed to explain why one dome was never finished. I've heard several times that a Native worker experienced a fatal fall while working on the dome, and his superstitious fellow workers refused to complete the tower. Another reason might have been that if the tower was completed then the church would have had to pay more taxes to Spain. I've also heard tales that the unfinished tower was a perfect lookout place to watch for Apache raiding parties.

For a time, the mission was deserted, then in 1859 the mission began operating under the direction of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1888, a mission school was established and in 1947 a new school was built.

By 1989, San Xavier was in need of another restoration. After two centuries of use, the walls and domes needed to be stabilized and years of burning incense and candles had damaged the interior paintings and other artifacts. An organization named the Patronato San Xavier was established to raise funds for the repair, restoration and ongoing maintenance of the mission Conservators were hired to use soft brushes, sponges, syringes and a special vacuum cleaner to remove layers of soot and grime, while mortar was replaced and special watercolors were used to repair the artwork. All work was documented. When the interior restoration was completed it was amazing to view the painted images. I realized that in all the times I had visited, I had never noticed the images of animals before. Since many of the artists were from the (then) Papago tribe that lived near the Mission, the animals depicted are desert animals such as jackrabbits. Maintenance on San Xavier is ongoing.

It's interesting to note that an article in the magazine High Country News, Dec 2010, "Can Ruins Be Ruined?" asked the question, should the process of restorations on old adobe structures such as San Xavier be delegated to historic preservation college trained "experts" or experienced masons trained in the age old methods of earthen masonry? It remains a question that those who care for old adobe structures wil continue to struggle with. That said, the Patronato organization is attempting to raise Three Million Dollars in a campaign called "White Dove" that is intended to restore the East Tower.

Visitors from all over the world travel to San Xavier to see the mission that is cited as a place of mystery and miracles and to see one of the finest examples of early mission architecture. San Xavier is a National Historic Landmark with a museum on site that offers a video and self guided tour. Donations are welcomed as since the Save America's Treasures program through the National Trust has ended, critical funding has been lost.. San Xavier is open every day and masses directed under the Diocese of Tucson are performed at different hours which vary according to summer and winter hours.

Interior of San Xavier Mission

Alter of San Xavier Mission Circa 1930
Alter of San Xavier Mission Circa 1930 | Source

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