We have visited a lot of beautiful missions as well as ruins of missions, but none of them compared to San Xavier del Bac (pronounced: san ha-vee-air dell bock). Known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is located on the Tohono O’odham (pronounced ah-dum, similar to autumn) San Xavier Indian Reservation. Today San Xavier maintains its original purpose as a parish church and school and is a National Historic Landmark.
Where is it?
The mission is located at 1950 San Xavier Road, Tucson, Arizona in the village of Wa:k, which is part of the Tohono O’odham Reservation. The site features:
- Mission church
- Gift shop
- Museum (currently closed)
- Guided and self-guided tours
- Grotto Hill – adjacent to the church
- Free admission
Click here for a short essay about San Xavier’s history.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino, who was the founder of twenty-four missions in the southwestern US, Mexico, and Baja California, founded San Xavier in 1692. In 1783, the Franciscan mission priest Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain obtained a loan from a Sonoran rancher to build the church we see today. Spanish architect Ignacio Gaona utilized O’odham workers for the actual labor. Construction materials include fired brick, lime mortar, and masonry vaults for the roof. The church was completed in 1797 and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US.
Throughout the years, San Xavier has undergone many repairs and restorations beginning with an earthquake in 1887 that collapsed one of the mortuary chapel walls and damaged the church. Additional restorations have been done periodically when the mission has had the funds to do them, and conservation efforts continue today. Even so, we don’t think the building has changed much according to the old photos.
Trivia: Wa:k means Bac in the O’odham language. Bac means where the water comes from beneath the sand.
Unfortunately, the stunning sanctuary was undergoing repairs during our visit and was full of scaffolding, so we only got a few good pictures. There were also worshipers in the church at the time, and we didn’t want to disturb them. Nevertheless, we were drawn to the elaborate altar with its colorful details and beautifully carved santos portraying Catholic saints. Scalloped shell motifs can be seen inside and outside the church and were used to honor the pilgrimages of Santiago, also known as Saint James the Greater, the patron saint of Spain.
The Mortuary Chapel
We have seen mortuary chapels at other missions. They are used similarly to a funeral home where people go to mourn the dead before burial. San Xavier’s mortuary chapel is a place for people to light candles. A lighted candle is a prayer offering, a symbol of one’s devotion to Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints.
San Xavier’s facade is certainly attention grabbing because it welcomes visitors directly into the church. Although, if we had not followed along with a volunteer tour guide, we wouldn’t have noticed the interesting details. Details of the facade include depictions of the crops that the O’odham people grew, such as squash, grapes, watermelons, wheat, beans and corn. These plants are easily seen in the top section. Also in the top section are male and female lions. Note that they do not look like African lions, but they look like the puma or mountain lions that the O’odham people would have been familiar with. Interestingly, the lions are said to represent the king and queen of Spain because Arizona was still part of Spain when San Xavier was built. Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the top portion are the curlicues on either side of the facade.
Look closely at the tops of the curlicues. On the left-hand side is a mouse and on the right-hand side is a cat. The belief is that if the cat ever catches the mouse, it will be the end of the world. A large scallop shell sits prominently between the statues of two saints, while two additional saints are featured on the bottom section. Some of the original paint can still be seen on the saints and on some of the embellishments.
We found the Baroque details, especially the curtains, quite interesting because those wouldn’t have been seen anywhere in the area at that time. Of course, architect Ignacio Gaona would have seen these adornments throughout Spain or other parts of Europe and most likely brought the ideas to San Xavier.
Even after two centuries and several renovations, portions of San Xavier are still unfinished. For example, the east tower doesn’t have a dome to match the west tower. The east tower has gone through recent structural repairs, however, causing its new paint to appear stark against the rest of the building.
There are several theories about the unfinished church that give pause for thought. One theory, and probably the most likely, is that the church ran out of money. Another a popular belief is that construction was halted after a worker fell to his death from the east tower. Further theories suggest that an unfinished building wouldn’t be taxed. Perhaps no one will ever know why the church has remained unfinished for so long, but we believe it is perfect just the way it is.
The historic photo below shows the Tumacacori santos in San Xavier’s baptistry.
When the residents of Tumacacori left in 1848, they took the santos from their church to their new home at San Xavier. Today the santos are back home in the museum at Tumacacori National Historical Park. One of Tumacacori’s santos, however, does remain at San Xavier and is sometimes mistaken by visitors as a mummy. Originally the saint was a carved depiction of the crucified Christ, though now encased in glass, the reclining figure has been redesignated as Saint Frances Xavier who was the first Jesuit missionary. The statue remains in the west transept of the church.
We are closing the post with one last shot of the church’s west tower.
Thank you for joining us on our trip to San Xavier del Bac!
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out these other amazing destinations:
Catoctin Mountain Park and National Shrine Grotto
Safe travels, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
Altar photo credit: Geremia, Wikimedia Commons. Apse photo credit: Nicholas Hartmann, Wikimedia Commons.
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.
37 thoughts on “San Xavier del Bac Mission”
This is clearly an example of color photography does it justice where the older, black and white, photos you included in the historic review, do not: I simply love the contrast you showed between the pristine white building and the welcoming façade! It really does show you where the entrance is, and I’m glad you pointed out the details on the façade, I wouldn’t have spotted them myself otherwise.
Thank you so much for reading and for your comment! That facade was something to see.
This looks like an amazing place to visit! The picture of the altar wowed me. It is amazing to me that the building is still here. I always prefer guided tours as I learn so much. I appreciate that you didn’t want to disturb those in prayer. Thank you for your post. The pictures are stunning.
Interesting architecture! I like how you always set up your blogs like a guidebook. They would be so useful if I visit these places.
That’s a very nice compliment! Thanks so much.
So cool! You guys are killing the travel game! Enjoy and be safe!
Thanks so much, Sean!
Wow, this is stunning, both inside and out! Definitely a must if ever I am in this part of Arizona (we only visited the north of the state so far). I would never have spotted the cat and mouse had you not pointed them out – I love them, and the legend attached to them 🐁🐈 Thank you for showing me this beautiful church and for the interesting historical background. As someone else has commented, it’s easily as good as any guidebook!
Aw, thank you for your nice comment, Sarah. It is a beautiful church.
Fascinating Kellye. It really does look Spanish. I’ve heard of buildings not being completed elsewhere as a way of avoiding tax, so it’s possible. Like you say, though, running out of money sounds feasible or the priorities changed
Thank you, Brenda!
Hey that’s really not unlike the cathedral in Panama City which has a very similar “unfinished” look to the central facade. We’re getting close to choosing our next US state for an in-depth road trip….you’re on our list of people to ask for advice….
Thank you, guys! We have been to so many great places around the US, but we haven’t been to all the states. As you know, we love the southwest, but visiting those states would be extremely hot in the summer. Our favorite state, besides Texas, is Utah. There are five spectacular national parks, and so much more, but it’s also hot in the summer. Fall is perfect for Utah. Colorado would be our second choice if you’re looking for outdoor adventures and scenery. Fall is also perfect for the northeast states of New England. We fell in love with Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Thank you – so many places, so little time!
That is the truth!
Beautiful pictures! I love the contrast of the blue and white. The church is unsuspecting on the outside, but the alter looks stunning. Great recap as usual 🙂
Thank you, Lyssy! It is a beautiful place to see.
What a beautiful mission and church. So glad they are working to preserve it. As to the unfinished tower, were churches and religions taxed in those days? If so, I bet it related to the tax. This is a very European way to avoid taxes. Thanks for sharing Kellye. Allan
I have wondered about the taxes too, but I don’t know. Thanks for reading the post, Allan!
What a STUNNING building, both inside and out! I got all googly eyes at your pictures 🙂 There is something kind of poetic about a church being left unfinished, like a physical representation of the things we have yet to do in our time.
Oh, I love your thinking, Meg! Thank you for checking out the post. Is graduation upon you or has it already happened?
I graduated this last Friday 🙂 What a wild ride it has been. So we will see where the path leads from here. You’re so sweet Kellye to remember that!
Thank you so much!
What a stunningly beautiful mission, both inside and out!
Thank you, Rose!
Gorgeous! I just love the architecture!
Such beautiful architectural details, both inside and out. It looks like it is in good condition, and it’s nice to hear they will continue to preserve its beauty. Thanks for sharing this great post!
Sharing is our pleasure. Thanks so much for reading and for your nice comment.
Thanks for sharing the history of this mission. The altar in the church looks so detailed with all those intricate carvings. Good call on following along with the volunteer guide to find out more information that you would have missed otherwise.
Thanks, guys! We enjoyed our visit there.
Wow – what a building. I can see why it’s called the white dove of the desert.
Thank you, Hannah!
Kellye this is such an amazing site inside and outside in Arizona. Beautiful images. Anita
Thank you, Anita. We enjoyed seeing this mission.
Another very well written blog post. I enjoyed reading about the mission and viewing your photos.
Thank you, Marion!