Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac as it appeared in 2003.
|Location||near Tucson, Arizona|
|Name as founded||La Misión San Xavier del Bac|
|English translation||The Mission of Saint Xavier of the Water|
|Patron||Saint Francis Xavier|
|Nickname(s)||“The White Dove of the Desert”|
|Founding priest(s)||Father Eusebio Francisco Kino|
|Governing body||San Xavier Indian Reservation|
|Current use||Parish Church|
|U.S. National Register of Historic Places|
|NRHP designation date||October 15, 1966|
|U.S. National Historic Landmark|
|NHL designation date||October 9, 1960|
Mission San Xavier del Bac is a historic Spanish Catholic mission located about 10 miles (16 km) south of downtown Tucson, Arizona, on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission was named in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino for a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order), Francis Xavier. The mission is also known as the “place where the water appears”, as there were once natural springs in the area. The Santa Cruz River, which now runs only part of the year, is also nearby. The mission is situated in the center of a centuries-old Indian settlement of the Tohono O’odham (formerly known as Papago), located along the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
The mission was founded in 1692 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, founder of the Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert chain, who often visited and preached in the area. The original mission church, located about two miles (3 km) away, was vulnerable to Apache attacks which finally destroyed it in about 1770. Charles III of Spain banned all Jesuits from Spanish lands in the Americas in 1767 because of his distrust of the Jesuits. From this time on, San Xavier mission was led by the more pliable and “reliable” Franciscans. The present building was constructed under the direction of Franciscan fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz mainly with native labor working from 1783–1797 with a loan of 7,000 pesos and serves the Catholics of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Unlike the other Spanish missions in Arizona, San Xavier is still actively served by Franciscans, and still serves the Native community by which it was built. The San Xavier church and its Indian converts were protected somewhat from Apache raids by the Presidio San Augustin del Tucson, established in 1775 roughly 7 miles downstream.
Outside, San Xavier has a white, Moorish-inspired design, elegant and simple, with an ornately decorated entrance. No records of the architect, builders, craftsmen or artisans responsible for creating and decorating it are known. Most of the labor was provided by the local Indians, and many believe they provided most or all of the artisans as well. Visitors entering the massive, carved mesquite-wood doors of San Xavier are often struck by the coolness of the interior, and the dazzling colors of the paintings, carvings, frescoes and statues. The interior is richly decorated with ornaments showing a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs.
The floor plan of the church resembles the classic Latin cross. The main aisle is separated from the sanctuary by the transept or cross aisle, with chapels at either end. The dome above the transept is 52 feet (16 m) high, supported by arches and squinches. At least three different artists painted the artwork inside the church. It is considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States.
Not much appears to have been written about the mission from 1797 to 1828. In 1822, it fell under the jurisdiction of the newly independent Mexican government and the Catholic Diocese of Sonora. In 1828, the Mexican government banned all Spanish-born priests, and the priest serving at San Xavier was sent home to Spain; San Xavier was left vacant. Between 1828 and 1858, the vacant church began to decay, and local Indians, concerned about their church, began to preserve what they could. In 1853, the church was brought under U.S. jurisdiction when the surrounding territory was bought in the Gadsden Purchase. The vacant and decaying church was re-opened, in 1859, when the Santa Fe Diocese added Arizona to its jurisdiction. The bishop for the Santa Fe Diocese ordered repairs to be made with diocesean money, and a priest was assigned to serve at San Xavier.
Today, the mission is open to the public daily, except when it is being used for church services. The San Xavier Festival is held the evening of the Friday after Easter and features a torch-light parade of Tohono O’odham and Yaqui tribal members. Extensive restoration efforts in the late 20th century have restored the interior to its historic splendor. Extensive exterior restoration is continuing (as of June 2007, the left tower was completely enclosed in scaffolding). Concrete stuccoing added in the 1980s is being removed as this material was found to trap water inside the church which damaged the interior decoration. This modern stucco is being replaced with the traditional mud plaster, including pulp from the prickly pear cactus, that “breathes” better to allow excess water to escape but requires more regular inspection and higher maintenance costs. Following extensive and ongoing restoration of the interior decorations, the mission church interior now largely appears in its original state, with brilliant colors and complex design.
Among the many legends surrounding the building is a popular myth suggesting that early taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, so the builders chose to leave one dome unfinished. Another legend is that the second tower is being left unfinished until the “Excellent Builder” will come to direct its completion. The mission has acted as a community center for the Tohono O’odham for almost two centuries. In 1895, a school was opened, and a grant of $1,000 was given to repair the building. More classrooms were added in 1900; in 1947, a new school was built next to the church for the Tohono O’odham children.
To the east of the San Xavier Mission, bordering the I-19 Freeway, is Martinez Hill. This hill, according to historian David Leighton is named in honor of Jose Maria Martinez. Mr. Martinez was born in the Pimeria Alta (now northern Sonora and southern Arizona), in the early 1800s. Around 1833 Jose wed Felipa Yrigoyen, likely in Tubac, Sonora. The couple had many children, including Maria and Nicolas Martinez. From 1836 to 1838, Lt. Col. Jose Maria Martinez, was in charge of the presidio in Tucson. In 1838 he retired from the military and was given land in Tubac. Ten years later, an attack by Apache Indians, forced the residents to abandon the town, with most moving to Tucson, but the Martinez family relocated to San Xavier, where he was granted land by the chief. The hill that bears his name was either included in the land grant or was very close to it. Martinez went into the cattle business for many years and would die from wounds suffered in an Apache attack, in 1868.
- Spanish missions in Arizona
- Spanish Missions in the Sonoran Desert
- Spanish missions in California
- Architecture of the California missions
- List of the oldest churches in the United States
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
- "San Xavier Del Bac Mission". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-15.
- (Nentvig, J. 1980. Rudo Ensayo: A Description of Sonora and Arizona in 1764. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ)
- Fontana, Bernard L. & photos by McCain,Edward, "A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac", p. 41, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8165-2840-0
- Marilynn Larew (February 1978). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: San Xavier del Bac Mission" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-05. and Accompanying 16 photos, 15 by Marilynn Larew from 1977, 1 from 1877 after earthquake.
- San Xavier Mission Organization site
Nentvig, J. 1980. Rudo Ensayo: A Description of Sonora and Arizona in 1764. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to San Xavier del Bac.|
- Official Mission San Xavier del Bac website
- Mission of San Xavier del Bac article at the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Online book on Mission San Xavier del Bac
- Photos and architectural drawings of San Xavier, from Historic American Buildings Survey
- American Southwest, a National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
- David Leighton, "Street Smarts: Hill, road honor Mexican military commander," Arizona Daily Star, August 26, 2014