Tumacacori's Yesterdays
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Yet, there was not shortage of leadership and energy, for at some time during the next ten years a new and sizeable church was begun at Tumacacori. That was the building which still stands here as the chief feature of Tumacacori National Monument. So far we have found little about the area during that period, other than routine entries of marriages, baptisms, and burials in the church register which give no clues as to the actual time work started on the new building.

It is indeed regrettable that such a man as Father Gutierrez has to be classified chiefly as a statistical figure, merely because we have been unable to find a diary or other more or less intimate day by day or even year by year account covering his many years of service here. He spent over a quarter of a century, longer than any other priest in its history, at this station, or at least making registry entries here, and must have been of great vigor and character to cope with the incessant challenge that was always met with on this fluid frontier.

"Routine" entries in a mission church register are not always a prosaic catalog of names and dates! Note what happened at Tumacacori on the harrowing day of June 5, 1801: Juan Antonio Crespo, a Caborca Pima of about 50 years, husband of Gertrudis Brixio, of Tumacacori, was killed by the Apaches, who attacked the town this day.

Jose Maria Pajanito, aged 20, died on the same day at the hands of the Apaches. "His body could not be brought until the 6th, por ser mucha la Apacheria, and the people did not dare to take out the body until the troops came."

Laying fired brick on the barrel-vaulted roof of the sacristy and on the bell tower. A museum illustration depicting the last stages of building activity on the present church.

Felix Hurtado, a boy of 15, died, like the other two, at the hands of the Apaches. There was no opportunity to give any sacrament whatever, since the Apaches stayed until six o'clock of June 6. By then the people of the town had succeeded in getting the troops (evidently from the Tubac presidio) and such neighbors as they could muster in the two days, to come to Tumacacori to help them. The Apaches then departed, and it was possible to go out and bring back the bodies for burial.

It is not difficult from the above to understand what occasionally happened to those venturesome persons who got outside the safety of the town or its environs at the wrong time! Apaches did more than make a fast raid and a killing here—they loitered near the town for two days. Undoubtedly in that time they sampled liberally of any products of orchard and fields that could possibly have been ready for eating as early as June, and took away a little "beef on the hoof" when they left.

We have a reference of 1806 [7], a report on the missions, which says the minister at Tumacacori "had begun to build the church anew, because it was narrow and very deteriorated," but that the work had been halted. No reason was given for stoppage of the work, but this is not surprising. Many factors affected construction of mission churches. Donated native labor, requiring much urging and encouragement, was a part-time and very slow process in most cases. Indians had their own problems, and their own very deliberate tempo. There were times when harvests, or nut-gathering in the hills, or repair work on an irrigating system, must take precedence over everything else.

In this same year Juan Legarra, governor of the pueblo of Tumacacori, petitioned the intendente of the province to issue new title papers for the Tumacacori land grant [8]. The previous title papers from the Spanish government had been lost. The petition asked the grant of four square leagues of land for the fundo legal (farming purposes) and two sitios for the estancia (stock farm) of the pueblo. After measurements and testimony, the final petition was sent to the intendente in 1807. It is interesting to note that Legarra also asked, in an attached petition, for the lands previously occupied by the pueblos of Calabasas and Guevavi, explaining that ". . . the stock cattle and horses are increasing each day under the direction of the present minister, Fray Narciso Gutierrez; wherefore the whole land is necessary for the preservation of said livestock . . ."

Typical costumes of the wealthier Spanish classes in the early 1800's.

Accordingly, new title papers were issued, for over 52,000 acres of land. That is a lot of territory, even by modern cattle ranching standards. Father Gutierrez evidently was quite a cattleman. As a church builder it is possible that he was characterized more by tenacity than by brilliance. The present church was a long time in the building. But how many interruptions may there have been, and for how serious cause? We do not know.

One interruption came in 1817, chronicled by a lamentably brief comment, obviously not by the resident missionary, that the church building "of brick and stone" was still unfinished, and no work was being done on it, "perhaps because of the insurrection" [9]. That word "insurrection" is very frustrating, for we find no other word of such event , and no apparent break in routine church registry entries for the period. For all we know, the "insurrection" might have been at some other area, and the application of the term in connection with Tumacacori might simply have implied the equivalent of a sympathetic "sit-down" strike.

Ground plan of Tumacacori Mission. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Father Gutierrez ended his long career of service with death, on December 13, 1820, and was buried under the floor of the old church, which obviously must have continued in use while the new one was being built. It was ironic that he had labored so many years to bring the new church to completion, and then should have missed seeing it function by such a narrow margin of time.

Shortly before the death of Father Gutierrez, on November 17, 1820, Father Juan B. Estelric took over the task of making entries in the church register, work which he continued through May 1, 1822. Whether he was formally listed as missionary in charge at Tumacacori after Gutierrez' death, or was simply "filling in" for a time, is not known, because we learn from another source that Father Ramon Liberos was officially recognized as the minister as early as June, 1821. However, Liberos did not begin signing entries at Tumacacori until July 18, 1822, and certainly was not regularly in residence here before that date. In March of the same year he was busy checking mission records in the Altar Valley and giving them an approval signature followed by the title "Secretary."

Whatever the status of Father Estelric was, he was given some authority, for he sold some 4,000 head of cattle with which to obtain funds, and evidently intended the proceeds to aid in completion of the new church. Then, at some time in 1822, work on the church was suspended on account of trouble about the pay for the cattle he had sold. And to this day we do not know whether Tumacacori was ever paid for those cows!

There is also no written evidence available to indicate that any later construction work was done on the church. However, such negative evidence is meaningless, unless we split hairs. It may be that no more actual major building work was done, but we know something was done, if only on interior finishing or decorating, for there is unquestionable proof the church was in use before the end of the year.

Top image—Tumacacori as the padres may have dreamed of it as completed with a two-story bell tower. Second image—the same as seen from the patio garden. Third image—bird's-eye-view of a model in the musem. Bottom image—the ruin of Tumacacori about 1968.

The following quotation from the burial register is self-explanatory: "In the year of our Lord 1822, on the 13th of Demcber, I Fr. Ramon Liberos, minister at this Mission of San Jose of Tumacacori, removed the remains of the Reverend Fathers Balthazar Carrillo and Narciso Gutierrez from the old church to the new, and buried them in the sanctuary at the Gospel side. As proof I sign this statement ut supra."

This occurred two years to the day after Father Gutierrez' death. Maybe Father Liberos was a sentimentalist, and intended this function, presumably the first of the many services to be held in the church, as an unofficial dedication, honoring on this particular day the memory of the priest who had spent so many years trying to make the new building a reality.

The church building never became a really finished product. The dome was never built over the bell arches, and no finish plastering was applied on the portion below the arches; the mortuary chapel was left with only a scratch plaster coat, and no dome. Those unfinished exterior features, while desirable, were time consuming and not strictly essential for function of a church.

On the inside, we find that the entry (narthex), the nave and the sanctuary were all finish plastered, then coated with a beautiful was of pure gypsum, which served as an effective base for the painted decorations which were applied over it. But, in the baptistry and sacristy, portions not so conspicuously and frequently seen as other parts of the interior, no gypsum finish was applied to the plaster, and no painted decorations. Doubtless it was hoped that at a later time these two rooms could be really finished.

The famed diorama in Tumacacori museum showing the church interior at High Mass.

Such evidence suggests that Father Liberos probably pushed worked ahead on the church just as fast as he could during the closing months of 1822, leaving untouched any feature that wasn't strictly necessary for the beginning of official function. Even before the church was ready, he was making use of new facilities, as is seen from a heading "cementerio nuevo" at the top of a page of burial records which has the first entry dated October 1, 1822.

He had ample reason for speeding things up. For one thing, he was a new man here, and without doubt had the newcomer's characteristic energy and enthusiasm. For another, it was only a few months after that momentous date of September, 1821, in which Mexico had declared her independence from Spain. Radical changes in frontier policy were shaping up to draw the closing curtain on missionary activity, and Liberos must have felt that by hurrying the long-drawn out building process of the Tumacacori church to a functional point he might better present it to new civil rulers as a going activity, and one worthy of continuance, either as a mission or a parish church.

Details of the diorama: an altar with flickering candles to the left; and the Spanish worshiper, with the baptistry in the background.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2007