Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded in 1692 by Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, at the center of a centuries old Tohono O’odham Indian settlement along the banks of the Santa Cruz River, about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. The original church was built in 1700, but it was razed to the ground in 1770, during an Apache raid. The Mission we see today was built under the direction of the Franciscan priests Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz, between 1783-1797, and is the oldest European structure in the state of Arizona. It is widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.
Following the Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the Mission was under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Diocese of Sonora, but in 1828, the Mexican government banned all Spanish born priests, and the last Franciscan departed San Xavier Mission for Spain in 1837. Without a presiding priest, the Mission began to fall into decay, and the local Indians began to preserve what they could of their church. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the San Xavier Mission was brought under U.S. jurisdiction, as part of the Territory of Arizona, and the church was reopened in 1859 when the Santa Fe Diocese brought the Mission under it’s supervision. The diocese of Santa Fe paid for repairs, and assigned a priest to serve the community. In 1868 the Diocese of Tucson was established, and it established Mass to be held regularly again at the church.
In 1872 the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a Mission school for the Tohono O’odham children. More classrooms were added in 1900, and in 1913 the Franciscans returned to the Mission. In 1947, they built a new school for the local children next to the church.
Mission San Xavier Del Bac is still n active church, run by the Franciscans, and continues to serve the Tohono O’odham community by which it was built. The Mission sees around 200,000 visitors each year, and is open to the public daily, except during church services. Be aware, photography during church services is not allowed.
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who have taught at the school since 1872, continue with their work, and live at the Mission convent. The San Xavier Festival is held the evening of the Friday after Easter, and features a torch lit parade of Tohono O’odham and Yaqui tribal members.
There is usually enough room to park an RV for a few hours while touring the church and grounds, and the Desert Diamond Casino in nearby Sahuarita, run by the Tohono O’odham, provides a safe and beautiful free place to park overnight. Be sure to try the fry bread being sold outside the Mission by local tribal members, it’s delicious, and a unique, traditional taste of Arizona.