A Little History
Mission San Xavier del Bac is a Catholic church founded by a Jesuit priest, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Spanish missionary who spent extensive amounts of time founding missions and preaching to native peoples in the American southwest, starting in 1692. While traveling to what is now California, Kino found a Pima Indian village near a stream bed ("Bac" means "where a stream emerges") in the Sonoran Desert. He stopped and preached to the people, who were receptive to his teachings. Father Kino did not stay in this location, but visited it often during his travels.
From 1692 through 1782 various priests took charge of the church and either visited regularly or were commissioned there. The services took place in a different church than the one that exists today. During this time the old church was vulnerable to Apache attacks but was left untouched. Charles III of Spain banned all Jesuits from Spanish lands because of distrust of the secular talents of the Jesuits, so from this time (late 1760's) on San Xavier would be led by Franciscans.
The church that remains there today was built in 1783. Not much is written about the Mission from the time it was built until 1828. At this time the Mexican government demanded loyalty from all Spanish priests, and many, including the priest at San Xavier, refused. Therefore, the priest serving at San Xavier was sent home to Spain, and San Xavier was left vacant.
From 1828-1858 the church began to decay and local Indians, concerned about the church, took church furnishings into their homes as a way of preserving what they could. In 1849 the California gold rush began, and then a large number of people came to the church on their travels to California. Most visitors wrote their names on the walls inside.
The decaying church was helped in 1859 when the Gadsden Purchase added Arizona to the Santa Fe Diocese. The bishop for the Santa Fe Diocese ordered a scout to Arizona, where they discovered San Xavier. Repairs were made with Diocese money and a priest was assigned to serve at San Xavier.
A school was begun several times at San Xavier. The church received funding through the government for school, but the first attempt in 1864 failed, as local Indians did not send their children. In 1895 a school was opened again, and a grant of $1,000 was given to repair the building. Classrooms were added on at the start of the century. In 1947 a new school was built next to the church for the To'hono O'odam children.
But there's something funny about the way it looks...
The first thing that observant viewers will notice about the church is that only one of its two bell towers is completed. This, the east tower, has an open tower and no bell. Several theories exist about why it was left unfinished. It is not known if the church's 7,000 peso loan to build it was not enough, or if the priests decided not to finish it so that no taxes would have to be paid (because the building was incomplete, it couldn't be taxed, under Mexican law). Another theory says that a worker was killed during construction and no one else could be convinced to go up.
Inside the Mission
The actual worship space of the church looks very small in comparison to the building itself. The pews are all carved wood, as are painted carvings on the walls. These depict various religious figures, such as saints and the Virgin. Perhaps the oddest carving is a wooden figure of a saint placed in a coffin. This lies to the left (west) of the altar. When I came to the Mission, on a Sunday morning right before Mass was about to start, I saw a line leading towards it, and, like a sheep, I joined it. As I came closer, and saw the carved head, I at first thought that it was the body of Father Kino (who is actually buried in Magdalen) and was horrified to see several people touching it affectionately. As I got closer, however, I realized what it was. People have pinned notes asking for prayers on the clothing and there are candles lit all around it.
The rest of the church building is comprised of offices, a museum (telling the history of the mission and also the history of some of the native tribes who live around it), and a small courtyard with a view of the mountains. In a building to the immediate east if the church, there is a southwestern gift shop. There is also a small place to light candles (which can be purchased in the museum) to the west of the church. Finally, there is a small hill to the east with a path leading to it from the church. There is a small chapel and a large cross on top of the hill; on Christmas Eve, the entire congregation makes a pilgrimage up the hill to the chapel.
In order to get there, first, be in Tucson, Arizona. Next, take I-19 south towards Nogales until you enter the San Xavier Reservation. Signs will lead you to the appropriate exit.
Catholic services are still held at San Xavier: daily at 8:30 a.m. and Sunday at 8:00 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. There are no registered members of the parish, visitors and people from neighboring Tucson often pack the Mission on Sunday mornings. During the service, people were literally standing outside the church the morning that I went.
In the parking lot of the mission there is an Indian market on Sundays serving all sorts of yummy food; try the sweet bread, if you go.