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Beautiful and calming to the soul
By: Zdenko Kahlina
This attraction is to Tucson what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, except it’s more ancient. 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.
Named for a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order), the Mission is also known as the “place where the water appears” as the Santa Cruz River (which runs underground) surfaces 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.
Just south of the city on I-19, the mission is well worth a visit. The outside architecture is impressive. The contrast of the white church against the blue sky is striking. Inside, the alter and flanking areas are quite colorful, filled with statues. The ceilings soar, with stenciled cupolas.
San Xavier del Bac is considered one of the finest examples of Mexican folk baroque architecture. Indian crafts shops and a cafe are nearby. The parish is still active, so please be respectful of religious activities when visiting.
For people who appreciate old churches, this one is really great. It has been in continuous use for over 300 years, though the current buildings are newer than that. There is a small museum with an excellent history of the mission, including many old photographs. There are many beautiful examples of Spanish colonial art and sculpture. The grounds are also nicely planted. If you want a Disney experience, this is not the place to go.
This church is on an Indian reservation, a sovereign entity. When you go to the church you are a guest of the native people and must follow their rules, jut like in any country. It is rude and disrespectful to ignore their rules. One rule is NOT to take pictures of a cemetery. Also, it is an actively used parish church and should be respected as such.
The mission was founded in 1699 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, who often visited and preached in the area. The original mission church, located about two miles (3 km) away, was vulnerable to Apache attacks who 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 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 from Apache raids by the presidio of Tucson, established in 1775.
Outside, San Xavier has a white, Moorish-inspired design, elegant and simple, with an ornately decorated entrance. No records of the architect, builders, craftsmen and 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 squelches. 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.
There is also a small museum to walk through, and a small hill to climb. All activities are free, though donations are welcome. The fry bread for sale out front makes a wonderful snack. There is a “market place” where vendors can sell jewelry, crafts, and trinkets, but both times we’ve been it’s been mostly closed. I don’t know when the best times to see these shops would be. Overall, with small children in tow I would expect that visiting the mission will a pleasurable hour to hour and a half.
This is a pretty good place to come take a look at and take pictures for your trip. If you come on Saturday, don’t forget to get some fried bread with honey from the vendors outside before they run out!