One glance, and you know why it’s known as the White Dove of the Desert.
Just imagine, in the late 1600s a stranger on horseback has entered a village. Many of the people gather to see this stranger who is dressed in a dark, flowing robe and large brimmed hat. The people of the village greet the stranger and welcome him.
These people are the Tohono O’odham and the village is Wa:k. The stranger is Jesuit missionary and explorer Eusebio Kino.
A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission was founded as a Catholic mission when Father Eusebio Kino first came to the O’odham village of Wa:k (which he transcribed as “Bac”) in 1692.
The mission church of San Xavier del Bac, the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, is a stunning example of Mexican baroque architecture. The Baroque architecture style features playful dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbling, and overall sense of balance.
After Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all its holdings in 1767, Franciscans took over the mission in Wa:k.
The current church dates from the late 1700s, when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. Construction began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. Franciscan missionary Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain began construction on the present structure using money borrowed from a Sonoran rancher. He hired an architect, Ignacio Gaona, and a large workforce of O’odham to create the present church.
Today that structure is the east wing of the mission, next to the east bell tower.
In 1783, Father Juan Bautista Velderrain began construction of the present church, which is made of clay brick, stone, and lime-based mortar.
Father Juan Bautista Llorens took over after Velderrain’s death in 1790 and oversaw much of the interior decoration. Among the exquisite murals and statuary — many made in Mexico and painstakingly transported to the church — you’ll see several recurring motifs, including the Franciscan cord and seashells, St. James’ symbol of pilgrimage.
The church’s interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space.
Although the friars ran out of money before they could finish one bell tower and decorate one of the largest rooms in the church, the mission opened for services in 1797. The elaborate Mexican baroque exterior and vividly painted interior had the desired effect—to draw native people into the fold.
Following Mexican independence in 1821, San Xavier became part of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan of the 19th Century departed in 1837. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the Mission joined the United States. In 1859 San Xavier became part of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1866 Tucson became an incipient diocese and regular services were held at the Mission once again. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission in 1872.
The Franciscans returned to the Mission in 1913. Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity now teach at the school and reside in the convent.
Although the church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and is open to the public, its primary purpose is to minister to the religious needs of its parishioners.
Restoration of the west tower was recently completed. Work on the east tower and the front facade will proceed as funding allows.
San Xavier del Bac
Location: 9 miles south of downtown Tucson just off of I-19; take exit 92 (San Xavier Road) and follow signs to the Mission
Address: 1950 W. San Xavier Road, Tucson, AZ 85746-7409
Hours: Open 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily, with occasional closures for special services; Sunday mass at 7:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 11:30 p.m.
Admission: Free. Donations are appreciated.
Phone: (520) 294-2624
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