Beginning in the 16th century, Spain established missions throughout New Spain, in an area known today as Mexico and the Southwest United States. This was part of their effort to colonize the region. These religious outposts didn’t necessarily have a church, but were settlements to establish Spanish presence and convert the Native Americans.
The church at Mission San Xavier del Bac is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The Baroque church is called the White Dove of the Desert.
As we approached the mission, I found it to be somewhat ostentatious because of the stark contrast between it and the surrounding area. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered many beautiful details in its exterior.
This mission was founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. Father Kino, who was born in Italy and joined the Jesuit order in his 20s, went to Mexico at the age of 36 and was “assigned” to the Pima, or O’odham as they called themselves. He gained the respect of these Native Americans due to his lack of dogmatism and helping them by introducing wheat, livestock and fruit trees into their existing farming practices.
In 1756, a small church was built at the mission. Then the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain around 1767 for political reasons, and Franciscans were sent to the missions to replace them. A Franciscan missionary hired an architect and started construction of the existing church in 1783. Many of the O’odham helped in the construction and the church was completed in 1797.
After Mexico gained independence, Spain withdrew all of its aid to the missions. The Spanish Franciscans began to leave the mission then, and the last Franciscan left in 1837, almost ten years after Mexico ordered Spanish born residents to leave the country. In 1854, the mission became part of the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase and four years later, became part of the Santa Fe diocese.
The diocese began repairs on the mission, but an earthquake damaged the structure. After further repairs were made, the Franciscans returned to the mission in 1913. The church façade was restored in 1953, and the mission became a National Historic Landmark in 1963.
Located in the Wa:k village of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, about nine miles south of Tucson, the church holds regular services and is the parish church for the Native Americans in this area.
Native Americans were selling fry bread just outside the church by the parking lot and of course we had to try some before leaving the area. We had the fry bread with cinnamon, it was delicious!
On the way to Tumacacori, we made a brief stop at the village of Tubac, which features over 100 shops and world class galleries. A very scenic spot.
Mission San Jose de Tumacacori was also founded by Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino, who apparently really got around, in 1691 in a Pima settlement on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River, 18 miles north of present day Nogales. The mission was moved once after a Pima revolt to its present location.
A small, modest church was built there in 1757. Then, in the early 1800s, the Franciscans began to build a large church, one that would match the Baroque glory of San Xavier del Bac. They had a master mason leading a crew of Indian and Spanish laborers, but didn’t have enough funds to complete it, leaving one bell tower unfinished. After Mexican independence, and the departure of many of the Spanish born Franciscans, only some native born priests remained.
In 1848, after an increase in Apache attacks and also after aid from Mexico was cut due to war, the last residents abandoned the mission. In 1853, the mission became part of the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase.
We took a self-guided walk around the grounds. The original roof of the church was destroyed, and the interior was subjected to weather and souvenir hunters for many years, so there is very little of the interior remaining. There is now a replacement roof, but the structure has not been restored.
There is also a reconstructed O’odham house and a mission orchard that has been planted in accordance with the time period when the mission was active.
We finished our walk and headed back to Tucson. Since we were coming from the South, we had to cross yet another immigration checkpoint. Once again we put on our “game faces” and got ready to answer the question “What country are you citizens of?” with “U.S.”. Once again, we passed the test.