After spending our first day in Tucson exploring the sights and trails along the Bajada Loop Drive in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, we drove across the city to start out our second day in the Rincon Mountain District so we could drive the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Unfortunately, there was a bike race happening that shut down the roads to get to the national park until 11:00 am. That meant we needed to find something else to do that morning, which wasn’t a problem because I already knew where I wanted to go…
I wanted to visit the gorgeous mission I saw on postcards at the Red Hills Visitor Center at Saguaro West the day before. From the architecture and cultural stories, to the artwork, paintings, and gardens, I have always found historic missions and churches fascinating places to visit and overall, very calming — we have visited several of the California missions and always try to visit other unique and interesting churches on our travels.
The mission I discovered is Mission San Xavier del Bac, nicknamed The White Dove of the Desert. It is is governed by the San Xavier Indian Reservation, an Indian reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation near Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert.
Visiting San Xavier Mission
San Xavier Mission is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and the church’s interior is filled with stunning original statuary and beautiful mural paintings.
The Mission was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1692 and named La Misión San Xavier del Bac which means the Mission of Saint Xavier of the Water. The original church was razed during an Apache raid in 1770. The Mission that stands today was built between 1783-1797 by architect Ignacio Gaona, who employed the O’odham people as laborers.
Covered in an elegant white stucco, San Xavier Mission rises in contrast to the surrounding desert landscape and stands as a magnificent and welcoming spiritual gathering place.
The ornate entrance features massive carved mesquite-wood doors that open to reveal a breathtaking multi-story sanctuary and walls adorned with colorful 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 a Latin cross. The main aisle is separated from the sanctuary by the transept, which has chapels at either end and a dome above the transept towers 52 feet above. The Mission is considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States and its rich ornamentation displays a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs.
When standing inside the church, which is cool even on a hot day, you can’t help but marvel at it’s splendor and the incredibly skilled craftsmanship that went into the construction of the Mission. What’s really interesting is that the Mission ran out of money at one point. So if you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see original pencil sketches/drawings and unfinished murals!
Museum And Gift Shop
Before leaving, we wandered through the Mission Museum, exploring the mission’s history, viewing historic artifacts and representations of life at and around the mission, and learning about its restoration. There is also a 20 minute video that tells the story of Mission San Xavier del Bac. We also stopped in the Gift Shop to pick up a Christmas ornament. It has has everything from jewelry, statues, gifts, books, and t-shirts to authentic Tohono O’odham baskets.
Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1692. The original church was razed during an Apache raid in 1770. The Mission that stands today was built between 1783-1797 under the direction of Franciscan fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz. They hired architect Ignacio Gaona, who employed the O’odham people as laborers.
Following Mexican independence in 1821, the Mission was included under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Diocese of Sonora in Alta California in 1922. It was left vacant and began to decay, but 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 re-opened in 1859 when the Santa Fe Diocese added the Mission to its jurisdiction. They ordered and paid for repairs, and assigned a priest to serve the community. In 1868, the Diocese of Tucson was established and regular services were once again held at the church.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission for the Tohono O’odham children in 1872, and in 1895, a grant was given to repair the building. More classrooms were added in 1900. In 1913, the Franciscans returned to the Mission and in 1947, they built a new school next to the church for the local children.
Know Before You Go
- Mission San Xavier del Bac is located in Wa:k village of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation at 1950 W San Xavier Road, Tucson, Arizona 85746 in Pima County.
- The Mission Church is open everyday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm. Free docent tours are given in the morning Mondays through Saturdays when the church is not in use.
- The Museum is open from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm and the Mission Gift Shop is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
- Visiting the Mission and museum is free.
- Read about the Mission’s history.
- As an active Catholic Church, services are regularly held and everyone is welcome to participate in Masses on Sunday or during the week.
- If you would like to light a prayer candle in the church, candles can be purchased in the gift shop and the museum foyer for $3.00. Only candles sold by the Mission may be lit in the church as they are smokeless candles and will not harm the paintings, frescos, and statuary.
- San Xavier Mission was designated a US National Historic Landmark in 1960 and added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
- The mission is governed by the San Xavier Indian Reservation, an Indian reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation near Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert.