San Xavier del Bac Mission -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

San Xavier del Bac Mission

San Xavier del Bac Mission
Tucson, Arizona
Coordinates: 32.107306, -111.007876
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission

Photo by Michael Wifall. Courtesy of Flickr Commons.

By the 1700s Spanish colonists expanded northward from Mexico into present day Arizona claiming more land for New Spain, and Jesuits founded a chain of missions along the Santa Cruz River in the Sonoran Desert. The San Xavier del Bac Mission, now a National Historic Landmark, was founded in 1700 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary who worked to spread Christianity in New Spain. The Tohono O'Odham and subsequent Franciscan missionaries built a mission at the site that continues to capture the imagination of visitors today. Constructed between 1783 and 1797, the historic white stucco church stands on the site Father Kino chose and has become a treasured part of the community's history, restored and cared for over generations. 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, Arizona.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
In the church’s plaza, traditional ramadas made of cholla and mesquite branches provide shade.

Photo by Ken Lund. Courtesy of Flickr Commons.

People of the Desert

Historically the O'odham inhabited an enormous area of land in the Southwest extending south to Sonora, Mexico, north to Central Arizona (just north of Phoenix, Arizona), west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River. The Spanish called the land the Papaguería and the Pimería Alta, but it had been home to the O'odham for thousands of years. They hunted rabbit and deer, harvested agave, cholla, saguaro fruit, prickly pear cactus, and other wild foods, and cultivated corn, beans, and squash with irrigation farming. The settlement of San Xavier del Bac near the Santa Cruz River was a Tohono O'odham town called Wa:k, a native word for water. The mission's name reflects the mixing of Spanish Catholic and O'odham desert cultures and the unique year-round availability of water. Irrigation farming in the intermittently flowing Santa Cruz River was possible at San Xavier del Bac because the presence of volcanic outcrops forced the underground flow of water upwards and the river flowed year round at the site.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission

Photo by Ken Lund. Courtesy of Flickr Commons.

The Missionaries Arrive

Father Eusebio Kino was a dynamic Jesuit missionary who founded the chain of missions throughout present-day Sonora and Southern Arizona. He first visited the O'odham community of Wa:k (Bac) in 1692. Through his missions, Father Kino intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native communities, introducing European technologies. After Padre Kino arrived, few changes took root—traditional subsistence activities continued with the addition of the Old World crop of winter wheat. The wheat was planted in November and harvested in June, filling an important gap in the O'odham agricultural cycle. Cattle, horses, and sheep also were integrated with traditional foods and agriculture. Reportedly Kino began to build a church near Wa:k in 1700, though it seems to have been a temporary building. When the settlement was later visited in 1751 by Jesuit Father Visitor Jacobo Sedelmayer, there was no church.

San Xavier's first permanent church was a small flat-roofed, hall-shaped adobe building begun shortly after the arrival of Jesuit missionary Father Alonso Espinosa in 1756. It was serviceable by 1763. The adobe church built by Father Espinosa was the one Father Francisco Garcés inherited when he arrived at San Xavier in 1768 as its first Franciscan minister. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the Franciscan order took control of the Spanish missions in New Spain. By 1772, the mission reportedly planted wheat, corn, and other crops and had a population of 270 people.

The Franciscans initiated and completed the mission church that still stands at San Xavier del Bac around the time that the Spanish Empire in North America was waning. Father Juan Bautista Velderrain started construction in 1783, using a loan of 7,000 pesos. In 1821, Mexico won its independence after 11 years of revolution. The new government began to secularize missions and required Franciscan allegiance to the Mexican government. In 1828, San Xavier del Bac's resident priest, Father Rafael Diaz refused to align himself with the new regime and left the mission. San Xavier would not have a priest for the next 36 years.

The American Period

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 Mexico made the mission a U.S. possession. In 1859, the Catholic Church placed the parish 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. The local 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. The church received its first priest since Father Messea in 1913, a Franciscan and native of Tucson named Father Ferdinand Ortíz. Since the arrival of Father Ortíz, California Franciscans have run the church and served the San Xavier Reservation. In 1947, they founded a school for local O'odham children. In 1949, they installed new floors within the church, repaired the roof and walls, and improved living conditions within the convento.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
Plan of San Xavier, drawn for the Historic American Building Survey, 1940.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

What you can see today

Constructed by O'odham laborers, the main building is composed of fired adobe bricks set in lime mortar. The exterior walls are painted white stucco. 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 convento.

Inside the chapel, the interior decoration of the church, carefully restored by Vatican conservators in the 1990s, reveals many detailed paintings and colorful geometric designs. The interior is decorated with intricately painted and carved religious imagery which covers the walls and vaulted ceilings. Wooden statues of San Xavier and the Virgin are set into a molded background behind the altar. Throughout the church there are carved wooden statues of saints. Visitors can also walk up the volcano outcropping and view the green fields farmed for hundreds of years in the Santa Cruz River Valley.

Under the care of the parish and a local non-profit 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. Free tours are given daily and the public is welcome to join the San Xavier community for regular masses.

Plan Your Visit

San Xavier del Bac Mission, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 1950 W. San Xavier Rd., Tucson, AZ. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The San Xavier del Bac Mission is an active Catholic mission church open daily from 7:00am to 5:00pm, except when weddings, funerals, or other special church functions are held. The church gift shop is open 8:00am to 5:00pm daily and the museum is open 8:30am to 4:30pm daily. For more information, visit the Mission San Xavier del Bac website or call 520-294-2624. The San Xavier del Bac Mission is a site along the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, please visit their website for information on sites along the 1,200-mile trail that connects history, culture, and outdoor recreation across 20 counties of Arizona and California.
San Xavier del Bac Mission has been documented by the National Park Service Historic American Buildings Survey and is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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