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As Spanish colonists moved northward from Mexico into present day Arizona claiming more land for New Spain, Jesuits founded a chain of missions along the Sonoran Mountain range. The San Xavier del Bac Mission, a National Historic Landmark, was founded in 1700 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit explorer who worked to spread Christianity in New Spain. Completed by the Franciscans in 1797, the historic white stucco church stands on the site Father Kino chose. Often called the “white dove of the desert,” the mission is located in the San Xavier Reservation, part of the Tohono O’odham nation, southwest of Tucson in Pima County, Arizona.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Catholic missions were an integral part of Spanish colonization. Missions, usually run by Jesuit or Franciscan friars, created European settlements that allowed colonization to expand the boundaries of Spanish culture and influence. The missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize Native Americans. At San Xavier del Bac, Jesuits first introduced the Tohono O'odham, a Piman-speaking group, to domesticated horses and cattle. The Spanish also brought European crops, like wheat. Missionaries transformed the lives of semi-nomadic Native Americans with animal husbandry and permanent, rather than seasonal, settlement. The settlement of San Xavier del Bac near the Santa Cruz River was a Tohono O'odham town called Wa:k, a Piman word for water. The mission’s name reflects the mixing of Spanish Catholic and O'odham desert cultures.
The mission’s founder, Father Eusebio Kino, was a leader of the mission system in New Spain. Born in Italy and educated in Germany, Father Kino was an explorer and a cartographer as well as a Jesuit missionary. He entered the Jesuit order at Freiburg, Germany, and soon chose a missionary life. He arrived in Mexico in 1681 and worked to spread Catholicism, by way of Spanish colonization, throughout the region. Prior to his death in 1711, Father Kino hoped to take up residency at San Xavier del Bac Mission. At that time, he was the resident priest at Mission Dolores in Magdalena, Sonora. He was still waiting for his replacement to arrive when he passed away. For his work in bringing European culture to southern Arizona, his statue sits in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Pilgrims still travel each year to Mission Dolores in Sonora, Mexico to celebrate the feast of Father Kino’s patron saint, St. Francis Xavier, and to honor Kino’s contributions to O’odham life and culture.
The mission church that still stands at San Xavier del Bac was completed around the time that the Spanish Empire in North America waned. Construction began in 1783 under the residency of Father Juan Bautista Velderrain, a Franciscan. A loan of 7,000 pesos provided the funds to build the mission. In 1821, Mexico became a Republic after 11 years of revolution, and the new government demanded allegiance from the Franciscan priests. In 1828, San Xavier del Bac’s resident priest, Father Rafael Diaz, refused to align himself with what he believed was an anticlerical regime and left his church. Father Diaz was the last priest to reside at San Xavier del Bac for 36 years.
The middle decades of the 19th century were an unstable period for San Xavier del Bac. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase land treaty between the United States and New Mexico made the mission a U.S. possession. In 1859, the Catholic Church placed the church under the jurisdiction of the Santa Fe diocese. The diocese, under Bishop Lamy, repaired the church’s exposed adobe brick, and in 1864, Jesuit Father Carolus Evasius Messea resided there for eight months. During Father Messea’s time at San Xavier del Bac, he founded the first public school in Arizona, but the local Pima community lacked interest in the church and limited funding forced the parish to close. In 1874, the U.S. government established the San Xavier Reservation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Bishop Henry Granjon ordered renovations and new construction on the church and oversaw repairs to the church façade and mortuary wall, which were damaged by an earthquake in 1887. Granjon had the entire church replastered and repainted. He also built a wall along the front of the convent and placed an arch at its east end. Grotto Hill, three hundred feet east of the church, is a small hillock topped by a white cross. On the north side of the hill is a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. Bishop Granjon oversaw the construction of this shrine to the Virgin Mary in 1908.
The church received its first priest since Father Messea in 1913, a Franciscan and native of Tucson named Father Ferdinand Oritz. Since the arrival of Father Oritz, California Franciscans have run the church and served the San Xavier Reservation. In 1947, they founded a school for local Pima children. In 1949, they installed new floors within the church, repaired the roof and walls, and improved living conditions within the convent.
Unlike many other historic Spanish missions from the era, the architecture of the current church at San Xavier del Bac Mission is entirely European. It has no Piman influence on its Baroque style, a mix of Byzantine and Moorish architecture, aside from the desert materials and aspects of the interior imagery. The main building is in the shape of a Latin cross. Two octagonal towers topped with belfries stand at the front of the building. One large dome covers the transept crossing, and smaller domes flank it to the north and south. The mission property includes the main church, mortuary chapel, dormitory, patio, garden, and convent.
Built by O’odham laborers, the main building is composed of adobe bricks set in lime mortar. The exterior walls are painted white stucco. The interior is decorated with intricately painted and carved religious imagery, which covers the walls and vaulted ceilings. Wooden statues of Saint Xavier and the Virgin are set into a molded background behind the altar, and throughout the church there are carved wooden statues of Native Americans and other saints. Frescoes depicting the lives of Catholic saints decorate the choir loft and main chamber.
The beautiful Spanish colonial church at San Xavier del Bac endures. The Secretary of the Interior designated the mission a National Historic Landmark in 1960. The church continues to serve the residents of the San Xavier Reservation. The church is open to visitors daily, except during special services, and the public is welcome to join the San Xavier community for regular masses.