Friday, January 22, 2010

San Xavier del Bac--"The White Dove of the Desert"

San Xavier is an old Spanish mission located a few miles south of Tucson, just off the Nogales highway, on the Tono o'Odham reservation. I'm sure the highway has a number but having grown up in Tucson it's just the Nogales highway. I have been visiting San Xavier ever since I was a wee lad. For me this remains one of the favorite places that I have ever seen.

San Xavier was established in 1699 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit who established a string of missions in northern Mexico and southern Arizona. The original mission was about two miles north of the current building, and was destroyed by the Apaches in 1770. In 1775 a Presidio was established at Tucson which provided military protection. The current building was constructed by Franciscans with Tono o'Odham labor between 1783 and 1797. It came under the Mexican government in 1822. In 1828 the Mexicans ordered the expulsion of all Spanish born priests, which included the priest at San Xavier. The Tono o'Odham people attempted to keep the building in repair until it came under US jurisdiction in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase. In 1859 the Archbishop of Santa Fe assumed ecclesiastical jurisdiction, sent a priest and diocesan money for restoration. It has had priests ever since.

Bac means "place where the water flows". Water from the Santa Cruz river bubbles to the surface near here, hence the name. The photo at the top of this blog looks to me like what it may have looked to a weary traveler approaching through the desert from the south, perhaps coming from Nogales or the mission at Tumacacori. This would have been a very dangerous trip. The Apaches forced abandonment of the mission at Tumacacori. The trail was called "From Tucson to Tumacacori to Hell" for good reason.
The mission appeared on the horizon like a white dove to give safety and comfort.

The photo above was taken from a small hill just east of the mission.This was taken about sunrise, before the sun had touched the building. The mission has been undergoing restoration/maintenance. Sometime in the past the white exterior plaster had been replaced with concrete based stucco, which turned out to be bad for the building because it trapped moisture. It is being replaced by mud plaster using the traditional Tono o'Odham recipe which includes cactus pulp. Most of the exterior is now finished except the east bell tower, as you can see by its dirty appearance, and the facade. This tower was never finished off with a cupola. The photo below is taken from the same vantage point about 20 minutes later.

The architect is unknown. The style is Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican renaissance. The photo below is taken about 45 minutes after sunrise from a more southerly vantage point.

The photos below show restored and unrestored windows, on the west and east bell towers, respectively.

When I first visited San Xavier the interior was very dark and dingy. Two centuries of candles, probably torches for light, heat and time had a major effect on the decorations, statues, paintings etc. In the mid 1990's a major interior restoration effort was undertaken. Artisans were brought from Italy, who had worked on restorations of the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, etc. The restoration is now complete, but about two months of every year they do maintenance/restoration where needed. Below are some photos of the interior.

This photo is just inside the door looking toward the apse and main altar.

This angel is on a pillar at the crossing.

The pastoral painting below is above the arch near the altar.

The choir loft is shown in the photo below.

This angel, painted on the corner of an arch, has the look of a Mexican peasant woman or possibly a Native American. A favorite image of mine.

Main entrance door, made of mesquite wood.


  1. These pictures are even more beautiful when clicked on to enlarge. The one inside San Xavier with the light hitting the rounded tops of the benches was especially striking.

  2. One big sigh. Beautiful pictures of a place that's also one of my personal favorites. I've always been fascinated by those missions and their histories. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lovely progression of the effects of the sunrise. And the blue sky with the clouds is gorgeous.

  4. I didn't know that about the plaster - fascinating. I've enjoying Matt's pictures too. It's a fascinating place.