History of the San Xavier del Bac Mission
Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary founded Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1692. It’s 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. Originally built in 1700, the church burned 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 Lorenz, between 1783-1797. The “White Dove of the Desert” 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 the Mission for Spain in 1837. Without a presiding priest, the Mission began to fall into decay. However, the local Native Americans began to preserve what they could of their church.
The San Xavier Mission came under U.S. jurisdiction after the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. As part of the Territory of Arizona, the church 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; Mass once again became a regular feature 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. In 1913 the Franciscans returned to the Mission. In 1947, they built a new school for the local children next to the church. The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who have taught at the school since 1872, continue with their work. The nuns live within the Mission convent.
The Mission Today
Mission San Xavier Del Bac is still an active church, run by the Franciscans. The church continues to serve the Tohono O’odham community. The Mission sees around 200,000 visitors each year, and is open to the public daily, except during church services. Be aware, photography allowed during church services.
The San Xavier Festival is held on the evening of Friday after Easter. The festival 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 sold outside the Mission by local tribal members, it’s delicious, and a unique, traditional taste of Arizona.