Mission San Xavier del Bac
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 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 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 somewhat from Apache raids by the Presidio San Agustin de 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 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 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. From 1828-1858, the vacant church began to decay and local Indians, concerned about their church, started preserving what they could. In 1853, the church was brought under U.S. jurisdiction when the surrounding territory was bought in the Gadsen Purchase. The vacant and decaying church was re-opened, in 1859, when the U.S.-based Santa Fe Diocese added Arizona to its jurisdiction. The Bishop for the Santa Fe Diocese ordered repairs to be made with Diocese money and a priest was assigned to serve at San Xavier. The mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
  • Apse and altar
  • Apse and altar
  • Nave towards the narthex
  • Interior
  • Exterior towards the east
  • Close-up of the exterior
  • South face of the church with the sepulcher on the left
  • 180º panoramic of both transepts and nave

Mission Today
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 and, in 1947, a new school was built next to the church for the Tohono O'odham children.

Building Activity

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