Mission San Xavier del Bac
The White Dove of the Desert
San Xavier del Bac is a treasure of southwestern history. An 18th century religious beacon that calls all to experience. Whether your interests lie in religion, history or art, San Xavier del Bac is an attraction you don’t want to miss when visiting Tucson and Southern Arizona.
It’s a destination of Catholic pilgrimage where locals and visitors pray to Saint Francis for intercessory prayer to God. San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are actually draped in real clothing.
Today, San Xavier del Bac is affectionately call the “White Dove of the Desert” and stately sits on the land of the Tohono O’odham Indians who have protected the mission for hundreds of years. It’s located just 10 miles southwest of Tucson Arizona; convenient to hotels, resorts, restaurants and other Southern Arizona vacation and tourist destinations including Nogales Sonora Mexico, a short driving distance from Tucson.
Few know that the existing San Xavier del Bac was not the original mission. The first was founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary, in 1692. Religious control of the mission was transferred from the Jesuits to the Franciscans in about 1768. Shortly thereafter, the mission was destroyed by less friendly Indian tribes. The present day San Xavier was rebuilt under the direction of Franciscan Fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz in 1783 about two miles from its original location.
No one firmly knows who the San Xavier architect was, who provided the construction labor or who the artisans were, but most believe all roles were fulfilled by the Tohono O’odham Indians. However, all agree that the architecture was the most profound of the early Spanish missions and the brilliantly colorful artistic embellishments are spectacular.
The masterpiece includes the spirit and charisma of its time. San Xavier has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the New World” and in fact, the same Italian artists that worked on the Sistine Chapel also came to San Xavier to help restore the interior to its original brilliance. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and is coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.
Father Kino’s given name was actually “Kuhne” and he was a native of Austrian Tyrol where he gave up teaching mathematics to become a Jesuit Catholic missionary. He named the mission in honor of his chosen patron saint, St Francis Xavier which is pronounced as “hauv-e-air”. The San Xavier surname of “del Bac” means place where water appears”. The Santa Cruz River actually flowed underground and reappeared at the surface in the settlement area. Hence, its entire name… “Mission San Xavier del Bac”.
While the Apache Indians were a constant threat to the church and its peaceful people, the war to gain Mexican independence from Spain had a long-term interim impact on the mission. In 1822, Mexico confiscated all Spanish missions and expelled all Spanish missionaries. From 1831 to about 1859 when the United States acquired the territory as part of the Gadsden Purchase, San Xavier del Bac was without a priest.
During this period, the Papago Indians (the previous name of the Tohono O’odham) nurtured the mission and protected it from the Apaches until the Rev. J.B. Salpointe who later became Archbishop of Santa Fe assumed religious leadership of San Xavier. The returning priests were surprised that the congregation of Native Americans had buried mission artifacts for safekeeping. The unearthed artifacts returned the holy glow to the mission.
More than two hundred years of San Xavier history has passed and the Franciscan Friars are still serving the needs of the mission to its Tohono O’odham congregation. San Xavier is open everyday of the year to tourists and catholic pilgrimage. It serves chapel services, communion, mass and self-guided daily tours.
Visit www.sanxaviermission.org or call (520) 294-2624 for more information. And when you visit, make sure you experience the Indian Fry Bread served any way you like it by the Tohono O’odham Indians on Sundays.
Map to Mission San Xavier del Bac.