The White Dove of the Desert, as Mission San Xavier del Bac has been very appropriately dubbed, has a prominent position on the desert plain in the southwest corner of Tucson, Arizona. Easy to spot from Interstate 19, it stands, a lonely survivor of struggle. A struggle still carried on to this day, not only with the saving of souls and formation of faithful Catholics but also with the obtaining of finances for the painstaking restoration of historic and priceless art. The story of Mission San Javier del Bac goes back before the story of the wild west. It starts even before the American Revolution.
Since 1692 the Mission has served the spiritual needs of the Tohono O’odham people and their ancestors. The stark beauty of this landscape struck Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino. Local natives convinced him of the need for a spiritual shepherd here. But the Mission would experience many fits and starts before there would be any continuity of leadership. Spain would banish the Jesuits, Franciscan friars would risk their lives against marauding bands of Apaches, and the fears of the tribe’s own medicine men would threaten the spread of the faith in what was then New Spain. The construction of the church building itself was a struggle. Builders laid the foundations in 1700 and 1702, but with a shortage of priests, and no resident priest at the mission until 1756, construction lay abandoned. Dismantling took place sometime after 1763. The Franciscans took over in 1768 and began building the present church.
Records remain sketchy as to who exactly the artists and builders were. Certainly, some of the locals received training from the craftsmen, and to this day some are involved in the ongoing restoration projects.
The church is built in the shape of a cross, with the main altar at the top, and a high dome at the center. Elaborate paintings grace the walls and ceilings. Pictures of angels, saints, God the Father, the Blessed Virgin Mary, faux tile, faux marble, and many other symbols decorate the church.
In addition to hand carved statues of angels, real clothing adorns representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary and saints. This is traditional in many places. While in the west transept is a reclining figure of Saint Francis Xavier, on which pilgrims pin “Milagros”, small metal images or symbols of the miracles they are praying for.
A mortuary chapel near the main church contains more statues and many votive lights. The Stations of the Cross, set into the walls, surround the old burial ground outside.
Just east of the church is a little hill topped by a large white cross. The pathway around the hill features a replica “Lourdes” grotto. The south end of the complex houses a plaza with native crafts and foods. The day we were there, a couple set up under the picnic area near the parking lot and sold yummy fry bread burritos and tacos.
Today Mission San Xavier del Bac is a thriving Catholic community. It is still administered by the Franciscans, with daily masses, weekly confession, mission school, religious education classes, and resident priests.
To plan your pilgrimage and for more information:
Mission San Xavier del Bac
1950 West San Xavier Road
Tucson, Arizona 85746
(c) Copyright 2003 by Robyn Dolan