It's nearly rush hour, and traffic roars at breakneck speed along I-19 south of Tucson. But less than a mile west of the freeway, inside the cool, dark church of the San Xavier del Bac mission, time slows and speed is measured by the steady pace of pilgrims' shoes.
In the silence, steps echo beneath the high vault of the sanctuary, where a sculpture of God gazes down from his painted heaven. Supplicants walk past more than 50 statues of saints as they make their way to the altar guarded by a pair of carved lions. To the left, in the west transept, lies a reclining statue of St. Francis Xavier―the mission's namesake.
The San Xavier del Bac mission has been inspiring powerful demonstrations of faith for more than 300 years. The church is, perhaps, the greatest legacy of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a determined Jesuit padre who transformed this portion of the Southwest three centuries ago, establishing a chain of 25 missions that stretched from northern Mexico into southern Arizona.
November, as the Sonoran Desert cools, is a good month to explore at least a portion of Kino's world. You can easily visit two missions near Tucson―San Xavier and Tumacácori―in a day. Make it a long day if you can, and finish your journey next to the padre's bones, which are displayed in a shady plaza about an hour south of the border in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico. History buffs might want to take a guided tour of Kino's missions in Arizona and Mexico.
Taming a rugged land
Traveling this region from 1687 to 1711, handsome Italian-born Father Kino was the first "cowboy missionary," introducing cattle to the area and establishing large ranches as well as missions throughout. Cows may have been key to his success. Historian Bernard Fontana believes that it was partly the introduction of domestic cattle that helped convince the O'odham Native Americans to accept the padre and his missions.
Kino founded a mission in the O'odham village of Bac in 1692 and began building a church in 1700. But he did not live to see it completed beyond a foundation. Kino's Franciscan successors began construction of the present church in 1783; in 1797 work was completed on the building that now ranks as one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.
Like other Southwest mission churches, San Xavier blends elements of old and new worlds: the towers and dome reflect Spanish and Moorish influences, while the desert setting and some of the building materials link the church to the world of the O'odham. But the mission is no museum. Even today, residents of the surrounding Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation worship among the carved pillars and painted cherubs of the church.
On the day we visited, Tim Lewis, a Tohono O'odham who grew up in San Xavier's shadows, stood atop high scaffolding in the east chapel, repairing loose fragments of plaster. "[The mission] is something my ancestors helped to build," he said. "We continue to hold our celebrations and our feast days here."