I arrive at the mission, having driven past the casino and its glittering billboard, stucco and neon mixing garishly among the saguaro. I’ve come to take pictures of this beautiful but challenging monument, indulging my photographic interest in a place rich in Catholic tradition that I have somehow never heard of before coming to this city.
The San Xavier del Bac Mission shines like a pearl in the long shadows of a desert afternoon, white limestone mortar dazzling amid the drab browns and greens of the Sonoran landscape. The church remains a proud part of the local Indian tribe that the original Jesuit missionaries to this area came to serve. This tribe, the Tohono O’odham, were known at the time of construction as the Papago — a derisive term applied to them by other unfriendly tribes, meaning “bean-eater” — but have since reclaimed the name that they call themselves, which means “people of the desert.” There are some lingering questions as to who designed this magnificent structure, and sadly, some of the techniques employed in its construction have been lost to history. What seems certain, though, is that the hands that built San Xavier were those of the local Indians for whom the structure was erected, and by whom it was preserved over the centuries of its tumultuous existence.
As I pass through the heavy wooden doors, my eyes struggle to adjust, dim light receding into a darkened space. Electric fans circulate warm air with a low buzz past the pious and the curious alike, some sitting, some kneeling, some wandering through with cameras in hand. The harsh Arizona sun spilling in from behind gradually recedes until it yields a clearer interior view. Finally, I see the rows of simple wooden pews and whitewashed walls painted with cubes of blue, yellow, red; intricate wooden carvings covering every surface; deep reds and garish golds in a baroque cacophony of visual extravagance. The centerpiece, a high altar in the center of the apse, explodes in curves, swirls, faces, and wings, flanked on either side with frescoes, angels, lions, saints. The tabernacle is wooden, like the rest of the décor, its matte surface painted with intricate flowers, angels, and a golden monstrance bearing a host.
The church has an odor that speaks to its antiquity, an amalgam of dust, old wood, plaster, and beeswax. Candles burn hot and bright in glass depicting La Virgen de Guadalupe alongside a statue of San Francisco Xavier, lying supine, encased in glass. He is covered with a blanket, sky blue and studded with the prayers and hopes of pilgrims: hand-written notes and photographs safety-pinned to the coarse azure fabric along with medals, hospital bracelets, ribbons, and beads.
Walking outside, I see activity beneath an open canopy of ocotillo branches, long skeletal poles covered in sharp, brittle spikes. Beneath, the stalls stand mostly empty, except for one vendor, his dark face weathered by the sun. He is having a discussion with two tourists, who want to see what the Indian fry bread he’s selling looks like before they commit to buying. Behind him in the parking lot, another member of his tribe is attempting to fix his pickup truck, the axle broken, one wheel bent impossibly to the side.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “but these are made to order. If you want to see, you have to buy one.” The couple, a young man and woman who have an air of foreignness about them, look at each other nervously through their designer sunglasses, unsure if they’re willing to commit. I step past them and volunteer.
“I’ll buy one,” I say. “And then you two can watch.” He reaches past his turquoise plastic tub of manteca and grabs a ball of dough. I ask if I can take pictures, and he laughs gruffly. “Sure. Twenty dollars.”
I take his joke as permission, and even as my camera emerges, he’s begun shaping it, his fingers moving quickly to flatten it into a small disc. He sets it aside and pokes with a stick at the embers of the wood fire that smolder beneath a cast-iron pot. Removing the lid, the pot emits a thick, pungent smoke, the oil within so hot I wonder how close it is to bursting into flame. Quickly, the dough goes in and the pot is closed, only to be opened again a few seconds later, the now crisp crust of the disc misshapen with bubbles. He sets it on a paper plate and I ask for the local honey, one of a half-dozen or so toppings available on his handwritten cardboard menu. He grabs a squeeze bottle and drizzles it generously.
I eat hastily and head past two statuesque lions that guard the path to my favorite vantage point — high atop the hill just to the east, made up of scattered but immovable rocks — that overlooks the church and the surrounding mountains and valleys. I sit beneath a white-painted, wooden crucifix at the crest of the heap, its face bearing the black Sharpie strokes of countless hands — including someone named Clarissa, who is, according to her inscription, “the favorite cousin of every cousin.”
These Tohono O’odham who live and work around the mission are the descendants of those to whom the Spanish Jesuits brought their Catholic faith some three centuries ago, and the subsequent history of San Xavier is a convoluted one. In 1692, Rev. Eusebius Kino, a Jesuit missionary and former professor of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt, founded the mission on this spot, 10 miles south of Tucson. Though named for St. Ignatius of Loyola’s sainted co-founder, the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories in 1767 (following their suppression) left the mission in need of caretakers, and the task fell to a group of Spanish Franciscans in the late 18th century, who oversaw the construction of the current church. After the war for Mexican Independence, the mission left Spanish control and became part of Mexico in 1821. Only a few years later, the new Mexican government banned any Spanish-born priest from serving in the country, and so the last of the original Franciscans departed San Xavier in 1837, leaving the mission without clergy.
Soon, the Tohono O’odham, growing concerned that their mission would fall into disrepair, began to preserve what they could in the absence of caretakers sent by the Church. In 1854, the Gadsen Purchase brought the mission into the United States, and shortly thereafter it became a part of the Diocese of Santa Fe, whose bishop ordered the beginning of restoration and repairs. In 1866, Tucson became its own diocese; and in 1913, the Franciscans returned to the mission, where they remain to this day. Restoration efforts are a constant and ongoing process at the mission, which became a historic landmark in 1963.
This church is not only a Catholic treasure but a distinctly American one, steeped in the history of a long-disputed border territory and cared for by a people who have been here since long before the first European settlers arrived. Too little is known about San Xavier del Bac outside of the immediate area; in all my years of Catholic education, I’d never heard a word about it.
The wind up on the hill grows cold, numbing my face and chilling me through my layers of clothes. I sit and wait for the sunset, when photographers like myself will descend upon San Xavier, setting up tripods and adjusting their cameras for long exposure, hoping for a chance to capture the beauty of this mysterious place as the sunlight changes from deep blue to pink, purple, and orange, and the ever-shifting clouds take on a life of their own in the pale glow.
Finally satisfied that I’ve taken every picture I want to get, I pack up my gear and drive down the long dirt road that will take me back into town. The road is unlit, and gathering clouds obscure the nearly-full moon as darkness covers the landscape. As I drive slowly away, I notice thousands of colorful, glowing lights along the side of the road. Pulling over to investigate, I see that this is an O’odham burial ground: Innumerable white crosses and statues of Our Lady are scattered across the land, all lit by solar lamps in pastel hues of blue and green and yellow, creating a surreal and magical scene.
There is a serenity at San Xavier, a spiritual connection that is born in places long-devoted to the worship of God. I know from my wife many stories about how she was drawn here as a child, long before her conversion to the Catholic faith, and she would take refuge on these mission grounds when life seemed most difficult. Fumbling for truth, she was able to find God here. All these years later, I finally understand.