Known as the White Dove of the Desert, Mission San Xavier del Bac, an active Roman Catholic church serving the San Xavier Indian Reservation in Tucson, is considered the finest example of mission architecture in the Southwest.
Visiting San Xavier del Bac Mission wasn’t part of my original plan when I created the list of places I wanted to see along my 5-day road trip through Arizona. I discovered it by accident while looking for places to stay in Tucson and knew I had to see it for myself.
It is the oldest Catholic church in the United States still serving the community for which it was built.
It was founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who established 22 missions in northern Mexico and southern Arizona. The current structure was made out of native materials by Franciscan missionaries between 1777 and 1797, and is owned by the Tohono O’odham tribe.
The beauty of the mission, with elements of Spanish, baroque, and Moorish architectural styles, is highlighted by the stark landscape against which it is set, inspiring an early-20th-century poet to dub it the White Dove of the Desert. It is situated in the center of a centuries-old Indian settlement of the Tohono O’odham (formerly known as Papago), located along the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
Inside, there’s a wealth of painted statues, carvings, and frescoes. Paul Schwartzbaum, who helped restore Michelangelo’s masterwork in Rome, supervised Tohono O’odham artisans in the restoration of the mission’s artwork, completed in 1997; Schwartzbaum has called the mission the Sistine Chapel of the United States.
The original church proved vulnerable to Apache attacks, which finally destroyed it in about 1770. From 1775 on the mission community and its Indian converts were protected somewhat from Apache raids by the Presidio San Augustin del Tucson, established roughly seven miles downstream.
Following Mexican independence in 1821, what was then Alta California was administered from Mexico City. In 1822, the Mission fell under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Diocese of Sonora. In 1828, the Mexican government banned all Spanish-born priests, with the last resident Franciscan departing San Xavier for Spain in 1837. Left vacant, the Mission began to decay. Concerned about their church, local Indians began to preserve what they could. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, San Xavier was brought under U.S. rule as part of the Territory of Arizona. The church was re-opened in 1859 when the Santa Fe Diocese added the Mission to its jurisdiction. It ordered repairs paid for with diocesean money, and assigned a priest to serve the community.
In 1866 Tucson became an incipient diocese and regular services were held at the church once again. It sits on 14 acres deeded to the Roman Catholic diocese of Tucson from an original grant signed in 1910 by President William Taft.
Extensive restoration in the late 20th century has returned the Mission interior to its historic splendor. Cement-based stucco added in the 1980s trapped water inside the church and damaged its interior decorations. It has been removed and replaced with traditional mud plaster incorporating pulp from the prickly pear cactus that “breathes” better and allows excess water to escape but requires more frequent inspection and has higher maintenance costs. Following extensive and ongoing restoration of decorations, the Mission church interior now largely appears in its original state, with brilliant colors and complex designs.
Unlike the other Spanish missions in Arizona, San Xavier is still actively run by Franciscans, and continues to serve the Native community by which it was built. The Secretary of the Interior designated the mission a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
The reredos of the main altar and of the side chapels are elaborately decorated in bas-relief with scroll work covered with gold leaf, and are supported by columns of unique designs.
The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are actually draped in real clothing.
This wooden statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint in the Roman Catholic Church, is part of the interior wall design in San Xavier del Bac.
Make sure to visit grotto hill. It’s immediately to the east of the Mission and is guarded by two lions. The juxtaposition between the painted floor and the natural rock grotto is beautiful.