Mission San Xavier del Bac

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Mission San Xavier del Bac
San Xavier del Bac 01.jpg
Mission San Xavier del Bac in 2003
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Location of Mission San Xavier del Bac in Arizona
Locationnear Tucson, Arizona
Coordinates 32°06′25″N111°00′29″W / 32.107°N 111.008°W / 32.107; -111.008 Coordinates: 32°06′25″N111°00′29″W / 32.107°N 111.008°W / 32.107; -111.008
Name as foundedLa Misión San Xavier del Bac
English translationThe Mission of Saint Xavier of the Water
Patron Saint Francis Xavier, SJ
Nickname(s)"The White Dove of the Desert"
Founding date1692 (Current church constructed 1692 (for Shrine to west of church dating( current structure 1783-1797) [1]
Founding priest(s)Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, SJ
Native tribe(s)
Spanish name(s)
Tohono O'odham
joined by Yaqui
Governing body San Xavier Indian Reservation
Current useParish Church
DesignatedOctober 15, 1966 [2]
Reference no.66000191
DesignatedOctober 9, 1960 [3]

Mission San Xavier del Bac (Spanish : Misión de San Xavier del Bac) is a historic Spanish Catholic mission located about 10 miles (16 km) south of downtown Tucson, Arizona, on the Tohono O'odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission was founded in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino [1] in the center of a centuries-old Indian settlement of the Sobaipuri O'odham who were a branch of the Akimel or River O'odham, located along the banks of the Santa Cruz River. The mission was named for Francis Xavier, a Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in Europe. The original church was built to the north of the present Franciscan church. This northern church or churches served the mission until being razed during an Apache raid in 1770.

Spanish language Romance language

Spanish or Castilian is a Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in the Americas and Spain. It is a global language and the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.

Spain Kingdom in Southwest Europe

Spain, officially the Kingdom of Spain, is a country mostly located in Europe. Its continental European territory is situated on the Iberian Peninsula. Its territory also includes two archipelagoes: the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. The African enclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera make Spain the only European country to have a physical border with an African country (Morocco). Several small islands in the Alboran Sea are also part of Spanish territory. The country's mainland is bordered to the south and east by the Mediterranean Sea except for a small land boundary with Gibraltar; to the north and northeast by France, Andorra, and the Bay of Biscay; and to the west and northwest by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean.

Tucson, Arizona City in Arizona, United States

Tucson is a city and the county seat of Pima County, Arizona, United States, and home to the University of Arizona. The 2010 United States Census put the population at 520,116, while the 2015 estimated population of the entire Tucson metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was 980,263. The Tucson MSA forms part of the larger Tucson-Nogales combined statistical area (CSA), with a total population of 1,010,025 as of the 2010 Census. Tucson is the second-largest populated city in Arizona behind Phoenix, both of which anchor the Arizona Sun Corridor. The city is 108 miles (174 km) southeast of Phoenix and 60 mi (97 km) north of the U.S.–Mexico border. Tucson is the 33rd largest city and the 58th largest metropolitan area in the United States (2014).


Today's Mission was built between 1783-1797; it is the oldest European structure in Arizona; the labor was provided by the O'odham. [1] An outstanding example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, it hosts some 200,000 visitors each year. [1] Ir makes a cameo appearance in Cather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop when it's described by Fr Vaillant as "the most beautiful church on the continent, though it had been neglected for more than two hundred years." [4]

Willa Cather American writer and novelist

Willa Sibert Cather was an American writer who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), a novel set during World War I.

<i>Death Comes for the Archbishop</i> novel by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a 1927 novel by American author Willa Cather. It concerns the attempts of a Catholic bishop and a priest to establish a diocese in New Mexico Territory.

The site is also known in the O'odham language as "goes in" or comes in: meaning "where the water goes in", as the water in the Santa Cruz came up to the surface a couple of miles south of Martinez HIll and then submerged again near Los Reales Wash. The Santa Cruz River that used to run year round in this section, once critical to the community's survival, now runs only part of the year.

Santa Cruz River (Arizona) river in the United States of America

The Santa Cruz River is a river in Southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. It is approximately 184 miles (296 km) long.

The Mission is a pilgrimage site, with thousands visiting each year on foot [5] and on horseback, some among ceremonial cavalcades, or cabalgatas in Spanish.

Pilgrimage journey or search of moral or spiritual significance

A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone's own beliefs.


A cavalcade is a procession or parade on horseback, or a mass trail ride by a company of riders. The focus of a cavalcade is participation rather than display. Often, the participants do not wear costumes or ride in formation. Often, a cavalcade re-enacts an important historical event and follows a long distance trail. A cavalcade may also be a pilgrimage.

Mission San Xavier Chapel, Main Altar Mission San Xavier Chapel, Main Altar.jpg
Mission San Xavier Chapel, Main Altar
Statuary, Mission San Xavier Chapel Statuary, Mission San Xavier Chapel.jpg
Statuary, Mission San Xavier Chapel


San Xavier Mission was established in 1692 by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, founder of the chain of Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert. A Jesuit of Italian descent, he often visited and preached in the area, then the Pimería Alta colonial territory of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. [1] Construction of the first mission church, about two miles (3 km) from the site of today's Mission, began on April 28, 1700, as noted in his diary:

Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert

The Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert are a series of Jesuit Catholic religious outposts established by the Spanish Catholic Jesuits and other orders for religious conversions of the Pima and Tohono O'odham indigenous peoples residing in the Sonoran Desert. An added goal was giving Spain a colonial presence in their frontier territory of the Sonora y Sinaloa Province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and relocating by Indian Reductions settlements and encomiendas for agricultural, ranching, and mining labor.

Pimería Alta

The Pimería Alta was an area of the 18th century Sonora y Sinaloa Province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, that encompassed parts of what are today southern Arizona in the United States and northern Sonora in Mexico.

New Spain viceroyalty of the Spanish Empire (1535-1821)

The Viceroyalty of New Spain was an integral territorial entity of the Spanish Empire, established by Habsburg Spain during the Spanish colonization of the Americas. It covered a huge area that included territories in North America, South America, Asia and Oceania. It originated in 1521 after the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the main event of the Spanish conquest, which did not properly end until much later, as its territory continued to grow to the north. It was officially created on 8 March 1535 as a viceroyalty, the first of four viceroyalties Spain created in the Americas. Its first viceroy was Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco, and the capital of the viceroyalty was Mexico City, established on the ancient Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

On the twenty-eighth we began the foundations of a very large and capacious church and house of San Xavier del Bac, all of the many people working with much pleasure and zeal, some in digging for the foundations, others in hauling many and very good stones of tezontle from a little hill which was about a quarter of a league away. ... On the twenty-ninth we continued laying the foundations of the church and of the house. [6]

The "little hill" is believed to be that southeast of San Xavier del Bac. Charles III of Spain distrusted Jesuits and in 1767 banned them from Spanish lands in the Americas. He installed what he considered the more pliable and "reliable" Franciscans as replacements. 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 7 miles (11 km) downstream on the Santa Cruz River.

The present Mission building was constructed under the direction of Franciscan fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz between 1783 and 1797. [1] With 7,000 pesos [7] borrowed from a Sonoran rancher, they hired architect Ignacio Gaona, who employed a large workforce of O'odham to create today's church. [1]

Following Mexican independence in 1821, what was then known as Alta California was administered from Mexico City. In 1822, the Mission was included 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 diocesan money, and assigned a priest to serve the community. In 1868 the Diocese of Tucson was established. It provided for regular services to be held again at the church.

In 1872 the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission for the Tohono O'odham children. In 1895 a grant of $1,000 was given to repair the building. More classrooms were added in 1900. The Franciscans returned to the Mission in 1913. In 1947, they built a new school next to the church for the local children.


Extensive restoration in the late 20th century has returned the Mission interior to its historic splendor. Cement-based stucco added in the 1980s had trapped water inside the church and damaged its interior decorations. It is being removed and replaced with traditional mud plaster incorporating pulp from the prickly pear cactus. This material "breathes" better and allows excess water to escape, but it requires more frequent inspection and has higher maintenance costs. Following extensive and ongoing restoration of decorations, the Mission church interior appears much in its original state, with brilliant colors and complex designs. [1]


The North Court at Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson AZ Mission San Xavier Del Bac by Philip G Coman, 2018.jpg
The North Court at Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson AZ

San Xavier has an elegant white stucco, Moorish-inspired exterior, with an ornately decorated entrance. Visitors entering the massive, carved mesquite-wood doors are often struck both by the coolness of the interior and the dazzling colors of the paintings, carvings, frescoes, and statues. Its rich ornamentation displays a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs.

The floor plan of the church resembles the classic Latin cross, with a main aisle separated from the sanctuary by the transept, which has chapels at either end. The dome above the transept is 52 feet (16 m) high, supported by arches and squinches. At least three different artists painted the artwork inside the church.[ citation needed ] It is considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States. [1]

The Mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. [8] [9]

Mission San Xavier del Bac, Towers by Philip G Coman, 2018 Mission San Xavier del Bac, Towers.jpg
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Towers by Philip G Coman, 2018
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson AZ Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson AZ.jpg
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson AZ

Mission today

San Xavier del Bac Mission, as seen from the hill east of the complex SanXavierDelBacMission.jpg
San Xavier del Bac Mission, as seen from the hill east of the complex

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. Widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, the Mission hosts some 200,000 visitors each year. [1] It is open to the public daily, except when being used for church services.

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who have taught at the school since 1872, continue with their work and reside in the Mission convent. [10]

The San Xavier Festival is held the evening of the Friday after Easter and features a torch-light parade of Tohono O'odham and Yaqui tribal members.

Nearby communities

Martinez Hill

To the east of the San Xavier Mission, bordering the I-19 Freeway, is Martinez Hill. This hill, according to historian David Leighton, is named in honor of Jose Maria Martinez. Mr. Martinez was born in the Pimeria Alta (present-day northern Sonora and southern Arizona), in the early 1800s. Around 1833 Jose wed Felipa Yrigoyen, likely in Tubac, Sonora. The couple had many children, including Maria and Nicolas Martinez. From 1836 to 1838, Lt. Col. Jose Maria Martinez was in charge of the presidio in Tucson. In 1838 he retired from the military and was given land in Tubac. Ten years later, an attack by Apache Indians forced the residents to abandon the town, with most moving to Tucson, but the Martinez family relocated to San Xavier, where he was granted land by the chief. The hill that bears his name was either included in the land grant or was very close to it. Martinez went into the cattle business for many years and would die from wounds suffered in an Apache attack, in 1868. [11]

Los Reales

To the north of San Xavier Mission existed the Los Reales community. The community (sometimes referred to as a town or village), which is believed to have existed from about the early 1860s to about 1912, had long been forgotten until an article in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper, by historian David Leighton, brought it to light. The community was started when a miner named S.R. Domingo built a home and foundry just north of the San Xavier Mission, on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. He prospered in his mining endeavor and is believed to have kept his wealth buried in the tall grasses along the river, since no banks existed at the time. In time, other individuals came to the area and began farms in the fertile valley supported by the ever-flowing river, and the community grew. They built adobe homes, planted crops, and established the first Los Reales community. Domingo is believed to have been murdered in the late 1860s, by miners he had hired to work his mine, but it is unknown what happened to his riches. [12]

In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant established the San Xavier Indian Reservation and all non-Native Americans were forced to leave the Indian lands. As a result, these individuals forced to leave set up the new or second Los Reales on the east bank of the river. This new community across from the old Los Reales included two stores and a blacksmith shop nearby. The Los Reales Cemetery also existed on that side of the river. It's believed that in 1912, as a result of the Midvale Farms (now the Midvale Park neighborhood) taking much of the water from the river, the then farming village ceased to exist. The only known remnants of the old town are parts of the cemetery and a street known as Los Reales Road. [12]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 San Xavier Mission Organization site
  2. National Park Service (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places . National Park Service.
  3. "San Xavier Del Bac Mission". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2008-12-28. Retrieved 2008-06-15.
  4. Cather, Willa (1927). Death Comes for the Archbishop. London: Penguin Modern Classics. p. 155. ISBN   978024133826-1.|access-date= requires |url= (help)
  5. Fontana, Bernard L. & photos by McCain, Edward, A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac, p. 41, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2010, ISBN   978-0-8165-2840-0.
  6. Kino's Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta, edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton, University of California Press, 1948, pp. 235-236.
  7. National Park Service. "San Xavier del Bac Mission -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary". Spanish Missions/Misiones Espanolas. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  8. "San Xavier del Bac Mission". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2007-07-28. Retrieved 2007-09-27..
  9. Marilynn Larew (February 1978). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: San Xavier del Bac Mission" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-05. and Accompanying 16 photos, 15 by Marilynn Larew from 1977, 1 from 1877 after earthquake..
  10. Franciscans. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  11. Leighton, David. "Street Smarts: Hill, road honor Mexican military commander". Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved 2017-07-17.
  12. 1 2 David Leighton, "Street Smarts: Bloody murder, buried money in town's history (Los Reales)," Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 16, 2014.

Nentvig, J. 1980. Rudo Ensayo: A Description of Sonora and Arizona in 1764. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ