If you travel just 9 miles south of Tucson on I-19 you cannot miss the beauty of the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Known as "The White Dove of the Desert," the Catholic mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692, making it older than Tucson itself. The mission sits within the boundaries of the San Xavier Indian Reservation. The construction of the white adobe structure that stands today was completed in 1797 and is the oldest European structure standing in Arizona. Unlike other Spanish missions in the area, which include Piman influence in the architecture, San Xavier is entirely European in its design. It is widely considered to be the best example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. One interesting aspect of the architecture is the carving above the doors which show a cat threatening a mouse. There is a legend that says if the cat ever catches the mouse it will be the end of the earth. Roughly 200,000 visitors come each year to visit this National Historic landmark from across the world to visit what is considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.
Spanish missions were established frequently as European colonization moved north from Mexico into what is now Arizona. This was an effort by New Spain to extend Christianity and the Spanish culture to the Native Peoples already living in the area. In the case of San Xavier the Pima-speaking people living in this valley were, and are still, known as the Tohono O'odham (T.O.) people. During the construction of the mission, most of the labor needed to build the adobe structure was performed by T.O. men. A private catholic school serving primarily Native American students has been present on the premises since The Sisters of Carondelet opened one there in 1872.
The Mission is constructed of low-fire brick, stone and lime mortar by the architect Ignacio Gaona. Ignacio has also created and built another church in Caborca, Sonora Mexico. The entire structure is roofed with masonry vaults, making it very unique among Spanish Colonial buildings. The style of the church is very distinct and would be described as Baroque. This style features a playful, dramatic element such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbling and overall sense of balance. The church contains numerous references to the Franciscan cord both on the facade and throughout the church. There is a shell as a symbol of pilgrimage after the patron saint of Spain, Santiago or James the Greater, is replicated all through the structure in window treatments, the sanctuary, the facade and other fascinating details within the interior.
The upkeep of such an old and beautiful church takes a lot of work. There is an organization that is dedicated to the conservation of San Xavier Mission, they are known as the Patronato San Xavier. If you would like to learn more about their work or to donate you can visit their website www.patronatosanxavier.org.
Over the years, Patronato San Xavier has raised more than $11 million for preservation and restoration work at the mission, including a multi-year project to restore the alter area and interior artwork. The Patronato is trying to raise more money currently to restore the East- tower.
In 1939, lightening struck and destroyed the 18th century lantern atop the west tower. It was rebuilt out of common house brick and mortar and rebuilt again in 2007 using threaded fiberglass. Fiberglass helped reinforce rodding in the minitower legs so that metal rods would no longer attract lighting. The east tower was never completed because the builders ran out of money to finish. They church is still unfinished and has left great space for people to figure out and create their own answers as to why it was never finished. There are many stories that have been told and retold but there is no documentary evidence for any of them. Here are some examples:
- Someone fell off the tower, and work was halted
- If a building was unfinished, its owners didn't have to pay tax on it
- A cyclone blew the dome off the east tower, and it was never replaced
The church still holds mass at multiple times throughout the week for their primarily Tohono O'odham congregation. The mission is open to visitors daily from 7:00am to 5:00pm (closed during services). They provide free docent tours Monday - Saturday mornings when the church is not in use. There is also a museum on site that is open from 8:00am to 4:30pm and a gift shop open from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily. There are candle lightings that the church provides as well, lighting a candle represents someones intention/prayers to God when lit. Candles can be purchased at the gift shop for $3.00 currently. Admission to San Xavier Mission and the museum are always free. For more information you can visit their website at www.sanxaviermission.org.