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.