The Church

The Church

illustration of mission church with scaffolding illustration of mission church with scaffolding

Left image
An artist's rendering of the mission church, still under construction.

Right image
Tumacácori's mission church


How It Was

The present church at mission San José de Tumacácori was started around 1800 under the direction of Franciscan missionaries. They had determined that they needed a newer, bigger church than the one previously established by Jesuit missionaries to better serve the population. The walls were made from large sun-dried and fired adobe bricks. The foundation is laid in trenches and consists of rocks, rubble and mortar.

The church foundations were laid in the early 1800s, and in the early 1820s the church was dedicated for use. The original plans had called for a church that was crossed shaped, with a three-story bell tower and a barrel-vaulted roof. The plan for a vaulted roof was changed to a flat roof supported by beams that spanned the width of the church. On top of these, running the length of the church, were smaller boards, topped with a layer of dirt and plaster. Due to budgetary constraints and a change of plans along the way, the final structure consisted of a long nave, with a sanctuary opposite the main door.

The façade of the church was brightly colored and consisted of architectural influences from the Moors, Spanish, Romans, and ancient Egypt. The pediments, niches, columns, arches, and corbels (little shelves) were painted with red, blue, yellow, and black.
Parishioners stood or knelt during services. The nave is a long and tall structure interspersed with four small altars, two on each side, each with a niche for a statue above it. The statues were of Mexican Baroque design. People gathered at them to pray and leave candles. The nave had a white plaster interior, decorated with colorful designs such as scallops near the ceiling. There was floral and geometric stencil work on the walls and arches in the church, in addition to colorful decorations in and around the niches.
To the right from the main entrance is a small passage to the baptistry. Its nine-foot-thick adobe brick walls are visible through a small window. In the center of the floor was a basin on a pedestal that would contain holy water for baptisms. In the northwest corner of this room were steep stairs that went to a small robing room for the choir, then on up to access the bell tower.
Just inside and above the main entrance was a balcony, approximately 10 feet in depth, that spanned the width of the church. It would have held members of the choir consisting of about eight to ten musicians playing instruments such as trumpets, oboes, bassoon, flute and zither. There would have been approximately the same number of singers who would have sung in Latin, Spanish, and O’odham. The music must have been beautiful due to the excellent acoustics of the church.
At the end of the nave, up a few steps, under a dome, was the sanctuary, the most ornately decorated part of the church. Because there has always been a roof in place, the remnants of the decorations can still be discerned. Bright colors of red, green, blue, and yellow were used in stencil work, painted draperies, painted picture frames, and small bells in groups of four that are near the base of the dome. The brightly colored medallion painted at the top of the arch leading to the sanctuary is a brilliant blue. Two small windows near the top of the sanctuary let in much welcomed light and help illuminate the artistry in this section of the church.
Down a few stairs off the eastern portion of the sanctuary is the sacristy. It is rather plain, with a lower roof than the main part of the church. There is one window in the north wall that looks out at the cemetery. The soot on the walls comes from campfires that were started here by soldiers, travelers, and cowboys after the church was abandoned in 1848. Other evidence of habitation that was left behind is graffiti consisting of various initials, signatures, and messages left by those who happened by.

How It Is Now

Historic preservation within the National Park Service practices the principles of stabilization rather than restoration. Exterior plaster, because it bears the brunt of weathering and erosion, tends to get the most frequent treatment. Nearly 14% of the original surface finish on the façade remains intact and the rest is repair work that has been done over the past many decades. Expert masons treat the repair plaster with a soft tan/peach-colored stain, a significant change from its original garish colors. Interior plaster is stabilized in place, but not restored or rebuilt. Original pigments survive under protected areas like overhangs and interior surfaces.

In the summer, the interior of the church, due to its thick walls, is much cooler than the outside temperature. The difference between the hot summer sun, and the cool, dim interior is a pleasant contrast.


Other Churches in the National Park System

Loading results...

    Last updated: May 29, 2020

    Park footer

    Contact Info

    Mailing Address:

    P.O. Box 8067
    Tumacacori, AZ 85640


    520 377-5060

    Contact Us