Tumacacori National Monument
NPS Logo

Tumacacori National Monument
Frank Pinkley
Superintendent Southwestern National Monuments


The church building is built for the greater part of sun-dried adobe bricks laid in mud mortar. The walls are between five and six feet thick at the base and are offset about half way up on the outside so they are about 39 inches thick at the top. In places where great weight was to be carried, as in the tower, the walls are nearly 10 feet thick. Where they were exposed to the weather and erosion was liable to occur, burned bricks were substituted for the softer sun-dried adobes. The facing walls of the bell tower were of burned bricks, backed or filled with a rubble construction of rocks and mud.

The church lies northerly and southerly with a width in front, including the tower, of about 52 feet and a length on the west side of about 104 feet. The plan has three essential divisions; the church room proper, the sacristy, attached on the east side at the north end of the church; and the tower, attached on the east side at the south end of the church.

Sacristy doorway from the Sanctuary side.

Approaching from the south, the visitor finds the facade of the church in bad condition. The tower was considered as a separate unit in the design and the decoration of the facade was not carried across its base, but was confined to the front of the church.

The design of the facade gives the effect of a lower story, an upper story, and a semicircular pediment. The entrance was an arched doorway, centrally placed. To the face of the wall on each side of the entrance, a pair of columns were attached. Resting on the capitals of these columns, an attached lintel runs across the face of the wall. Between each pair of columns, well up toward the capitals, niches were placed for the reception of statues. Above the lintel, comes the second story effect. The square choir loft window was the center of the design here as the arched entrance was the center of the design in the lower section. Mounted on the lintel, were four other attached columns, a pair placed on each side of the choir loft window. These columns were shorter than those below and were placed closer together. Between the members of each pair of these upper columns, was another niche for a statue. These columns in turn carried another attached lintel. The facade was completed with a semicircular pediment, and rising into this pediment from the ends of the upper lintel ran a cornice, giving a gable effect. The two slopes of this cornice did not meet, but left an open space on the wall about 4 feet wide and just above this space was a diamond shaped plate of bricks and mrotar extending a few inches from the wall.

The whole facade was surrounded by a heavy moulding projecting about 6 inches from the wall. At the top of the semi-circular pediment was a half-sphere and mounted on this was a cross.

Aside from decoration by columns, lintels, mouldings, and statues, the facade was further decorated by painting, traces of which still exist in the protected spots where the rain could not wash it away.

One enters the church by way of the arched doorway which is 6 feet wide and 9 feet 6 inches high. This doorway is now closed by a pair of doors made to represent the original ones, each about 10 feet high and 4 feet wide, pivoted at top and bottom instead of swinging by metal hinges.

Remains of one of the altars in the base of a pilaster.

The church room is 17 feet wide and nearly 90 feet long in its inside measurements. It has three well marked sections; the vestibule; the nave; and the sanctuary.

Upon passing through the entrance the visitor is in the vestibule or space which was covered by the choir loft. This choir loft occupied about 13 feet of this end of the church, being supported on three sides by the walls of the church and in the front by the choir loft arch. This arch has fallen, but the pilasters remain attached to the walls, the one on the west being complete up to the spring line of the arch. It is to be hoped that we will sometime be able to restore this choir loft as sufficient traces remain to determine its original construction.

To the right of the doorway as one comes into the vestibule is a tunnel-like passage which leads through the 9 feet of solid wall to the baptistery which is located in the base of the tower.

The comparative lowness of the vestibule, the height to the under side of the choir loft being about 10 feet, must have emphasized the height of the nave, the roof of which was about 24 feet above the floor, and, by contrast, have made the nave and sanctuary seem higher than they really were.

Traces of the holy water fonts still show, one being on each side of the nave a little distance in front of the choir loft arch.

The nave of the church was long and narrow and was lighted by two rather small windows on each side placed high up in the walls. Brilliant lighting was not wanted, as the decorations of the interior were rather crude and would show to a better advantage in a subdued light. No seating arrangements were provided. Persons attending services could walk from place to place in the nave and could kneel before the altars.

There were three altars on each side in the nave of the church. The front and rear altars were nearly identical in plan and elevation. They had floor bases 8 inches high and about 5 by 7 feet square, upon which the Padre could stand when he officiated at the altar. Rising from this floor base was the altar base, 6 feet long, 2 feet high and 2 feet wide, which was surmounted by a flaring moulding or top 14 inches high, making the top or table of the altar about 4 feet above the floor of the church. Here stood the furniture of the service. Above the altar, in the wall of the church, was a large niche for a statue and this niche was surrounded with a double frame worked out of plaster. The inner frame consisted of a column on each side of the niche bearing a lintel across the top, and the outer frame was a simple moulding running up in straight lines from the edges of the altar and forming a gable at the top in two of the altars and a semi-circle at the top in the other two.

A pier occurs attached to the wall on each side of the nave about the center of the church. I think the intention when designing this church was, to roof the nave with a barrel vaulted brick roof, and these piers were built with the idea of later springing an arch from them which would strengthen the vaulted roof. The church was abandoned before this vaulted roof was attempted. This theory will account for the great thickness of the walls of the Tumacacori as compared with all the other walls of the churches of this chain. The walls of the church of San Ignacio, built during Jesuit times prior to 1769, originally carried a flat roof and they were made only 41 inches thick all the way up. Later, the Franciscans being placed in charge, the flat roof was removed and a barrel vaulted brick one built. They thought the walls of the nave were too light to carry the thrust of the new roof, so they built great rock buttresses 17 and 18 feet square, tapering upward against the outer walls to carry the thrust of the new roof. I think, with this example in mind, the designers of the Tumacacori looked forward to the vaulted roof and took care of its future strains in the six foot walls.

A smaller altar was built in the base of each of the piers. The pier had a niche near the base for a statue and another about half way up the wall.

Other plaster decorations in the form of 14 molded plaster medallions about 18 inches high by 12 inches wide were spaced about the walls of the nave. These must have been the Stations of the Cross used in the Catholic ritual. I was able to account for only 12 of these medallions until recently, I found an old photograph showing the missing two on the now fallen arch of the choir loft.

Near the front of the nave, on the east side, one can see the pulpit entrance. The pulpit itself has long since fallen, but enough evidence remains to show how it was constructed. It was located in the angle formed by the pier which supported the sanctuary arch and the east wall of the nave. A brick corbel built in this angle of the walls extended up and out far enough to form the floor of the pulpit. Entrance to the pulpit was gained, not from the floor of the nave or sanctuary, but by way of a series of steps leading up from the sacristy through the wall of the nave.

Dividing the sanctuary from the nave is a fine arch, still in good condition. This arch carries the front wall of the sanctuary which ran several feet higher than the walls of the nave.

The sanctuary is about 17 feet square and its floor is raised 2 or 3 feet above the floor of the nave. The raised floor is an earth fill and is retained at the front by a wall running in the form of a circle from one pier of the sanctuary arch to the other. A series of brick steps, centrally located, led up from the floor of the nave to the floor of the sanctuary and a brick balustrade ran from each side of these steps back to the piers, dividing the sanctuary from the nave.

The whole back wall of the sanctuary was filled with the high altar and its subsidiary decorations and statues, now defaced and destroyed until parts of the original design are probably lost to us forever.

The sanctuary is covered with a dome which is decorated on the inside with conventional designs painted in several colors. The four corbels which spring from the corners to carry the dome, bear symbolic paintings. Well up on the walls of the sanctuary one can see where 12 frames have been attached, surrounding paintings or medallions. These frames may have held portraits of the twelve apostles. A niche in the west wall of the sanctuary held a statue.

An arched doorway leads through the east wall of the sanctuary into the sacristy. The floor here is about a foot lower than the floor of the sanctuary. The sacristy is a large room, measuring about 17 by 20 feet, and is covered with a barrel vaulted brick roof. This roof springs from the east and west walls and is supported in the middle by an arch. Poor designing is shown here in that both ends of this supporting arch spring from the side wails directly over doorways. The walls of the sacristy were not decorated nor were cupboards or closets built in them as was often the case in the other churches in this country.

In addition to the door entering from the sanctuary, the sacristy had a window through the north wall which looked into the cemetery, a doorway in the east wall which led into the quadrangle of rooms on that side of the church, and the passage above mentioned in the west wall by means of which the priest entered the pulpit.

The tower of the church was three stories in height. The first story was used as a baptistery, the second story was to be a robing room for the choir and the third story carried the bell arches. A stairway leads up from the ground floor, being built in the north, west and south walls of the tower. This stairway comes up into the bell tower at the foot of the south bell arch.

The baptistery was a small room, entered by a doorway from the nave and lighted by a tunnel-like window through the 9 feet of solid wall in the south side of the tower. It is roofed with a perfect little domed ceiling which was nicely plastered, but the walls and ceiling show no decorations.

At the east end of the north wall is a low doorway through which one enters the stairway. The stairs rise two steps to a landing within the wall and then turn west in the north wall. They turn again at the northwest corner of the tower and reach a landing on the second floor near the center of the west side. From this landing a door opens to the west through the church wall and another to the east into the robing room. This room is approximately the same size as the baptistery below it. Provision was made for lighting the robing room by a V shaped slit in the east wall, arranged with the apex of the V pointing outward. Local tales have it that this slit overlooks the mines in the mountains across the river where the Padres acquired their fabulous riches. No closets or cupboards occur in the walls of the robing room and I think the room was never finished. Beams were laid in the wall above to carry the ceiling of this room, but the actual ceiling, which would have been the floor of the bell tower above, seems never to have been laid.

After passing the two doors on the landing, the stairs rise again, turn in the southwest corner of the tower and come up and out at the foot of the south bell arch.

Burned brick was used for an outer shell in the construction of the bell tower and was backed or filled with a mixture of mud and large rocks. The bell arches are about 5 feet wide, 5 feet thick, and 10 feet high. The four faces of the bell tower were identical. Centrally located in each face was the great bell arch with its beam of wood near the top from which the bell was hung. The face of this arch, at the top, projected several inches in the form of a moulding made of specially cast bricks. Framing the arch at a distance of a foot or more ran another moulding made of a different type of special brick. At the corners of the tower another decorative moulding was carried up. Between the frame of the arch and the moulding at the corner, in the outer face of each pier of the bell tower, was a niche for a statue. These niches had brick corbels built in at their bases and their tops are beautifully worked out in a shell design with a fine grade of plaster, the only finishing plaster on the whole bell tower.

Undoubtedly it was the intention to finish the bell tower with a moulded brick cornice, surmounted by a dome with a cross over all, but, for lack of funds, the work was never carried to completion.

The outside walls of the church were finished with a double coat of lime plaster. The lime was obtained by burning stone which can be found in the vicinity of the mission. Above the offset line, or on approximately the upper half of the walls, the plaster was floated smooth and left with out decoration, but on the lower half of the walls a peculiar form of decoration was used. Fragments of brick and black slag were crushed until the pieces were about the size of grains of corn. Before the plastered surface of the wall had hardened, the workmen went over it, slapping half a handful of these red and black pebbles into the soft plaster at intervals of about a foot in regular lines which ran vertically, diagonally, and in a horizontal direction. The black and red mixture makes an interesting decoration in the white lime plaster.

Drainage from the roof was handled by means of 14 downspouts moulded against the walls. These were not tubes, such as we use to care for roof drainage today, but were open, shallow valleys, moulded of lime against the wall, carrying the water from the cornice to the base of the wall, where it was probably taken away in open ditches.

<<< Previous
Next >>>

Last Updated: 16-Apr-2007