Mission San Xavier del Bac
By Bob Difley
If you are a history buff, you know that in the Western states, unlike along the eastern seaboard or New England, you don’t see many historic sites chronicling European exploration with dates in the early 1500s, 1600s and early 1700s, when the Europeans were settling what would eventually become the United States of America.
Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit Priest from Northern Italy, was one of the first missionaries to visit the West. He visited Native Americans in the O’odham community of Wak (Bac), south of what is now Tucson, Arizona, as long ago as 1692.
Though he fruitlessly attempted to build a rustic church as early as 1700, it was Father Alonso Espinosa who actually began building the first church of any substance in 1756. Father Francisco Garces arrived in 1768 and became its first minister.
The current structure, though added to and rebuilt over the years, was begun during the American Revolution, clear over on the East Coast, in 1776 and wasn’t completed until 1797. It is an outstanding example of Spanish baroque architecture, with elegant arches, domes and twin bell towers (one left unfinished). Inside resides a historically priceless collection of Mexican baroque art, frescoes and wooden carvings. An ongoing process of restoration begun in the early 1990s is restoring the original luster to the 200-plus year-old art.
Mission San Xavier del Bac’s dazzling white walls have given it the name “The White Dove of the Desert,” and it still serves the Tohono O’odham today with daily masses.
Photography is permitted when services are not in progress. Drive nine miles south of Tucson on I-19 and take exit 92. Turn west for one mile. The church is open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free and donations are accepted.
On the grounds outside the church the O’odham operate a makeshift market of native jewelry, pottery, arts and crafts, and several food booths featuring Indian fry bread.
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