Winter Break in the Southwest: Mission San Xavier del Bac

This year over Winter Break I decided it would be smart to spend a few weeks in warmer weather – last year’s frigid Iowa winter made for a rather tiring “Spring” semester. We decided to visit Tucson, Arizona, to spend time with friends and family, eat lots of tamales and tacos, and soak up some sunshine! While I had been to Tucson several times before, I had never quite managed to visit the San Xavier mission just outside of the city, on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The Church at this site is a fantastic example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States, and this time I made sure to be a good tourist and include it on our trip. I have written before about the importance of including Hispanic culture and history from within the US into Spanish classes (as opposed to relegating it to Latino or Chicano studies seminars), and I hoped this visit would provide me with additional knowledge to bring to my future classrooms.  I was especially excited that I purchased a coloring book of the “Madonnas of Mexico” – each image appears with an English and Spanish information paragraph. I’m fairly certain that I will find myself coloring in my office at some point this semester when I’m feeling stressed!


Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ (January 2015) – image mine


Vendors selling “Indian Frybread,” beans, and all sorts of delicious homemade concessions in the sprawling plaza in front of the church

According to the plaque on the church, “Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded by the Jesuit missionary, Fr. Eusebio Kino in 1692. The present church was built under the direction of the Franciscans. Construction began in 1783 and was completed in 1797.” As an 18th century edifice, the church is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. Importantly, it was a part of New Spain (Mexico) for just as long as it has been a part of the United States – The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 ultimately placed the Mission inside the US. The “History” page of the Mission’s website provides a brief overview of the history of the site and structure, as well as a timeline of major events, treaties, and legislation that affected the Mission. Below are a few images of the Church’s exterior. You can see that the left tower has been restored most recently.


The interior of the church is quite Baroque in its rich, detailed sculpture and embellishments. According to the Mission’s information page, very little is known about the people who decorated the interior, but the artwork was most likely created by artists from Queretero, in what is now Mexico. The sculptures, paintings, and frescoes boast brilliant colors and ornate details typical of European Baroque styles (Byzantine and Moorish). The National Park Service travel itinerary on American Latino Heritage presents detailed information about the architecture and history of the San Xavier Mission Church. Below are images of the main altar, followed by two altars just off to the side of the central one. In general, I was struck by the juxtaposition of contemporary green and red Christmas decorations and tinsel with such intricate and historic baroque sculpture and painting.


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine

Below is the alter dedicated to Saint Francis, which is to the left of the main altar. It serves as a destination for both reverent pilgrims and local devotees who travel to the Church with special needs, requests, or thanks to give the Saint. According to the Mission’s website, the tradition of praying to God through the intercession of Saint Francis goes back to Father Ignacio Joseph Ramirez y Arellano, “who is believed to have had a miraculous state in death that was witnessed by people from all over the Tucson area.” Those who come with needs or prayers often leave a small, handwritten message at the Saint’s altar or at the base of his sculpture. Interestingly, given the high-tech world in which we live, you can now leave a message for Saint Francis online – simply fill out the online petition and your intention will be printed out and offered to Saint Francis (confidentially, of course!). I may just have to do this – if only for the sake of using the internet as intercessionary prayer!


Altar to St. Francis at Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ (January 2015) – image mine


Finally, the Nativity Scene inside the church contained figures that represented the cultural and artistic heritage of the Native American community of the greater Southern Arizona region. The Mission is still run by Franciscans, yet it continues to serve the Native community, the Tohono O’odham, within which it was built. While the architecture and design of the church is decidedly European, there clearly exists a mixture of Colonial Spanish and Native American influences within the present decor.  Importantly, while many in the present community identify as Catholic, traditional beliefs and practices have not been lost, and they continue to be passed down from elders. In addition to the Nativity scene, there is also a statue dedicated to one of the first Native American Saints in the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The Southwest Photo Journal has beautiful images of the celebration of her canonization at San Xavier.


Nativity Scene inside the Church (Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. January 2015) – image mine


Details. Nativity Scene inside the Church (Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. January 2015) – image mine

This wooden statue of an O’odham woman is part of the interior wall design in San Xavier del Bac.

Wooden statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Saint. Part of the interior wall design in San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. (image from Galen R. Frysinger –

After learning about the Tohono O’odham Nation for this short blog post, I cannot help but focus on the erasure of Native communities and their narratives from both our knowledge of history and of our contemporary cultural imaginary. For example, while I found information about the Gadsden Purchase on several websites, none included references to the O’odham people. On the Tonono O’odham Nation homepage, however, the (delayed) effects of this purchase on Native communities is highlighted:

“On the U.S. side of the border, the Gadsden Purchase had little effect on the O’odham initially because they were not informed that a purchase of their land had been made, and the new border between the United States and Mexico was not strictly enforced. In recent years, however, the border has come to affect the O’odham in many ways, because immigration laws prevent the O’odham from crossing it freely. In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border has become “an artificial barrier to the freedom of the Tohono O’odham. . . to traverse their lands, impairing their ability to collect foods and materials needed to sustain their culture and to visit family members and traditional sacred sites.” O’odham members must produce passports and border identification cards to enter into the United States” (

I’ll end this post with a few colorful images of the chapel at San Xavier, which was overflowing with votive candles, rosaries, santitos, and flower offerings. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Mission, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour here.

IMG_0067 IMG_0068

Have you visited the San Xavier Mission? What other examples of Colonial Spanish Architecture within the United States have become popular tourist attractions?

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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2 Responses to Winter Break in the Southwest: Mission San Xavier del Bac

  1. ensondeluz says:

    ¡Muy hermosa y muy instructiva crónica, Rebecca! ¡Gracias!

    Seguro que si alguna vez “bajas” al Perú vas a encontrar el parentesco del barroco mejicano con el de “la ruta del barroco” en la provincia de Quispicanchis en el Departamento del Cuzco, en particular en la “capilla sixtina de América”, el templo de Andahuaylillas, y en otros igualmente valiosos:

    Por allá viví yo hace cuarenta y cinco años.



    • rebeccambs says:

      Gracias por los enlaces, Ramon. Hasta ahora no he visitado a sudamerica… hay tantos sitios magnificos que quiero ver alli. Saludos de iowa!

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