Mission San Xavier del Bac, located on the Tohono O’odham reservation, is like a beacon guiding ships at sea to safe harbor. That’s actually a pretty good analogy for this two century-old mission in the Arizona desert south of Tucson.
Fray Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, established the mission in 1692 when he visited the Tohono O’odham village of Wa:k (That’s not a typo; it’s a diacritical mark indicating pronunciation). As in all parts of New Spain, the priest was there to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. He actually laid the foundation for the church around 1700, but it was never built.
A decade later, Fray Kino died in Sonora, Mexico. His mission was carried on by Fray Espinosa, but again church construction was delayed. Jesuits fell out of favor and were expelled from the Americas. Construction did not occur until Franciscans took over the mission. In 1783, Fray Juan Bautista Velderrain began building the church, which wasn’t completed until 1797.
History swirled around the mission. The Franciscans left in 1837, more than a decade after Mexico declared its independence from Spain. Ten years after that, Mexico lost the land during the Mexican-American War, and the final border wasn’t set until the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. San Xavier became part of the Diocese of Santa Fe. It became part of the new Tucson diocese in 1866. Finally, Franciscans returned to the mission in 1913. Most recently, it became a non-profit entity, separate from the Catholic church, although Mass is still celebrated in it.
In all that time, the church stood — sometimes home to worship services, other times neglected. For example, an earthquake in 1887 damaged the building. Lightning in 1939 struck one of the bell towers. Preservationists used cement stucco over the clay brick, causing moisture to be retained within walls. Nature was taking its toll.
Instead of wringing hands and watching the old church crumble away, a group of community leaders organized in 1978 to conserve the mission. Restoration has been on-going ever since.
Mission San Xavier was constructed of lowfire clay brick, stone, and lime mortar. It is roofed with masonry vaults, making it a unique example of Spanish Colonial architecture within the United States.
Under cloudless, blue skies, the gleaming, white exterior of the church is visible for miles, perhaps because there are no multi-story buildings and no shopping complexes nearby — just single homes and expanses of creosote-covered desert.
If the exterior gleams, the interior abounds with the loving hands of artists. Little is known about the people who decorated the interior. Most likely, they were commissioned by Fray Velderrain. Sculptures were created in guild workshops and transported by donkey to the mission. Craftsmen gessoed clothing onto the sculptures once they were in place.
Plain walls have been painted. From the floor to four feet up, walls are a red, black, and gold combination of squares and parallelograms, giving the design a three-dimensional appearance. Walls have detailed murals of religious themes, while remaining wall space and columns have been painted to look like marble.
Columns themselves have niches in which sit sculptures of saints. Above each niche is a shell, a symbol of pilgrimage after Santiago or James the Greater, the patron saint of Spain. The shell symbol is replicated in window treatments, sanctuary, facade, and other interior details.
Altars are an explosion of color and design. Their Baroque architectural style is reminiscent of theatre, with curtain displays, faux doors, marbling, and an acute sense of balance. The main altar is a complex combination of carved columns, niches filled with statuary, bas relief of angels and cherubs — all done in rose, blue, and gold. Two angels guard the main altar — one on either side.
In side altars, St. Francis of Assisi and Virgin Mary are presented in life-size sculptures dressed in fabric robes and gowns. A hand-carved pulpit stands ten feet above the floor, accessed by a wooden stairway.
While Mission San Xavier stands as a sentinel of Spanish Colonial architecture, much like a living-history museum, it is still a church. Mass is celebrated regularly, and pointedly there are notes on the St. Francis and Virgin Mary altars not to light candles during Mass.
Like the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in Chimayó, Mission San Xavier annually attracts approximately 200,000 visitors from around the world — some to restore their faith while in this ancient building, some just to step back in time to the recapture a sense of the 18th century.