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As Spanish colonists and missionaries pushed northward, Jesuit priests settled along the frontier of New Spain to spread Spanish culture and Christianity to the Native Americans. The Mission los Santos Angeles de Guevavi is the site of a Jesuit head church, called a “cabecera,” on the grassy banks of the Santa Cruz River in what is today southern Arizona. The ruin of the mission church is all that is left of this National Historic Landmark, which is part of the Tumacácori National Historic Park located south of Tucson, Arizona. The mission church is the only known extant Jesuit-built Spanish colonial church in the United States and a valuable source of information about Jesuit and native mission communities in New Spain.
To advance both Spain’s and Rome’s interests, Friar Eusebio Francisco Kino, a pioneering Jesuit priest, founded the small rancheria of Guevavi in 1691 and encouraged the local Pima to submit to baptism. Kino created the mission there in 1701 when he brought Father Juan de San Martin to live in residence. Working under Spanish authority, Kino founded more than 20 missions and smaller outposts throughout the arid region, which the Spanish named Pimeria Alta. The site of Mission Guevavi is the location of the first Jesuit head church, a “cabecera,” in the southwestern United States.
The Jesuit missionaries often named missions using a saint’s name coupled with a Hispanicized version of the local native town. Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi was also known as San Gabriel de Guevavi, San Rafael de Guevavi, and San Miguel de Guevavi depending on the Jesuit or later Franciscan priests who presided over the mission. To avoid confusion in the records, it was often simply called “Santos Angeles” de Guevavi. Not a Spanish term, “Guevavi” was derived from the Piman language word “gi vavhia” and means “big spring.” By wedding a Piman word with Catholic belief, the Spanish missionaries began the process of acculturation.
The Pima and Tohono O’odham at the missions adopted hallmarks of Spanish culture and adapted to the Catholic religion. They embraced animal husbandry, learned Spanish, and participated in parish life. Today, many O’odham still speak the Piman language as well as Spanish. The successful acculturation in these areas does not mean all of the O’odham and Pima accommodated the Spanish or submitted passively to the conversion process. Prior to Spanish colonization, the O’odham and other Pima groups moved seasonally and planted crops in various regions along the floodplains by the Santa Cruz River, an area called the Pimería Alta. The Spanish missions ended this lifestyle for many Pima. Even if they rejected mission life, their land was appropriated for livestock or permanent settlement. In 1751, a group of O’odham resisted Spanish occupation, but failed to drive the colonists off their land. Called the Pima Revolt, this conflict was the result of nearly a hundred years of indigenous religious and cultural oppression. During this revolt, the priest at Guevavi, Father Garrucho, abandoned his mission to escape an impending massacre. Mission Guevavi was sacked and the Spanish military soon suppressed the Pima.
Following the dismissal of the Jesuits in 1767, the Franciscan order took control of the Spanish missions in New Spain. During the latter decades of the 18th century, both Spanish power in North America and Mission Guevavi began to fade. Apache raiders increased their attacks on settlements in the region. At Guevavi, the Apache raiders would attack mission residents and steal cattle. The threat forced Franciscans to move the region’s head church from Guevavi to Tumacácori, where they could be closer to the Spanish fort at Tubac. Without a priest, Mission Guevavi was abandoned in 1773.
In the 19th century, Mexican miners used the adobe church and convent as their headquarters and worked the profitable gold mine at Guevavi. Mining continued in the area between 1814 and 1849, after which time Apache raids became too dangerous to keep the mine operational. The local Pima were also forced that year to leave Guevavi and move north to San Xavier Del Bac. The United States acquired Guevavi as part of the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, following the Mexican American War, and American business in Arizona reopened the mine in 1864, abandoning it again by 1888.
For nearly 40 years, Guevavi existed in obscurity. In the 1930s, the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey documented the site. In the 1960s, archeologists from the University of Arizona conducted an in-depth field survey. Dr. William J. Robinson led the archeologists who partially excavated the ruins and carefully avoided damaging the sites of historic burials around the mission. Archeologists determined that the site of Mission Guevavi was not heavily occupied prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Pima moved there in large numbers after Jesuit settlement commenced.
The ruins at Guevavi are of the church and its attached convent, completed just months prior to the 1751 revolt. Built of simple adobe clay and straw, the ruins of the Mission Guevavi church measure 15 feet wide and 50 feet long. The adobe walls of the church are three feet thick and six feet tall. The church’s interior was plastered then whitewashed. The convent was also made of adobe, 90 feet by 105 feet, and contained several rooms. The perseverance of these Jesuits makes Guevavi’s ruins unique. While other historic mission ruins exist from the Franciscan period, Guevavi is the only standing church that can provide information about Jesuit missionary life and methods of Hispanic acculturation prior to the order’s removal from New Spain.
Today, the ruin of the mission church is a restricted part of the Tumacácori National Historical Park. Ranch owner Ralph Winterford donated the land to the National Park Service in 1990, the same year the ruins became a National Historic Landmark. Visitors interested in seeing Mission Guevavi must make special reservations ahead of their visit during winter months. More information about the mission is available at the park’s Tumacácori Museum. Mission los Santos Angeles de Guevavi is part of the Juan Bautista de Anza Heritage Trail.