Historic Church in Southern Arizona is a Visual, Religious Beacon

Posted By Mike Padgett

Feb. 2, 2010

TUCSON, Ariz. –After a week of January storms, the air in southern Arizona was clean and fresh. So were the historic church’s dome and towers, glistening as white as the new snow blanketing the mountains north and east of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, nicknamed the “White Dove of the desert,”  is like a beacon in the desert, visible for miles in many directions. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The mission is a few miles south of Tucson, just west of Interstate 19, on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. The parking lot at San Xavier del Bac was empty on a recent Saturday morning. I was the first to arrive. Exterior photos on this day will be easy, but interior shots will have to wait for another day. The church and staff will be occupied by two baptisms and other services.

Soon after I parked, other visitors began arriving in family groups. They filled a parking lot that was separate from public parking, so I assumed the family visitors lived nearby. Other visitors, including those on a tour bus, walked around the church, talking softly and pulling out their cameras.

One elderly gentleman used a four-footed metal cane in his left hand. He took tiny steps as he approached the main entrance. We exchanged good mornings. He wore a Marines jacket and cap, the kind you might receive when you join a retired veterans club. He walked soldier straight, despite his age. An attentive young woman was at his right elbow.

Inside the church museum, a visitor motions for her companion to join her at a window. She explains that the thick walls keep the church cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The church’s exterior provides an endless source of photo angles, depending on time of day, time of year, and whether the day is sunny or cloudy. Morning and evening sunlight, arched doorways, niches and other architectural features – including the apocalyptic cat and mouse above the front entrance – offer creative and constantly changing shadows for memorable photo angles.

Little is known about the reason why a cat and a mouse were placed in swirls at the top of the church’s facade. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The cat and mouse are crouching in the façade’s swirls. The cat is on the east side of the facade. The mouse is on the west side. If the cat should ever catch the mouse, so the legend goes, the end of the world is near.

The features of the cat and the mouse have been worn smooth by years of wind and rain. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

In the church gift shop, I bought a copy of author Kathleen Walker’s book, “San Xavier: The Spirit Endures.” The photographs were provided by contributors to Arizona Highways, which publishes the magazine with the same name as well as books about Arizona’s peoples and places.

In her prologue, author Walker says San Xavier, “which has been compared to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, is called the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.”

A plaque on the church says the mission was founded in 1692 by Fr. Eusebio Kino in 1692. It says the “present church was built under the direction of the Franciscans.” Work started in 1783 and was completed in 1797.

In the 1870s, the church was a dominant structure in Arizona. Photo from Library of Congress archives.

There are different stories about the church’s uncapped tower. According to one, “when the (Spanish) Crown placed a tax on finished buildings, the Franciscans purposely left the tower incomplete,” author-historian-storyteller Marshall Trimble wrote in the second edition of his book, “Roadside History of Arizona.”

But since churches were exempt from taxation, another story has it that the mission simply ran out of money, according to Walker in her book about the church.

A must-see destination

San Xavier del Bac, as expected, is included many books and maps about Arizona. One popular map was created by the late Bob Waldmire, an illustrator who for about 40 years traveled Route 66. He created and sold maps of old Route 66, which ran from Illinois to California, as well as maps of the states crossed by the “Mother Road.”

Waldmire died in December 2009 following a bout with cancer. Friends called him the “last original hippie” and the “Johnny Appleseed of Route 66.” A story about Waldmire’s death appeared in the Dec. 18, 2009, issue of the Chicago Tribune.

The mission also is prominent on Southern Arizona artist Royce Davenport’s whimsical “Classic Map of Arizona.” Standing next to the sketch of the mission is a cartoonish cowboy saying, “Enchiladas por favor. Some say Tucson is the Mexican food capitol of the known world.”

Solitude prompts memories

As I walk around San Xavier, and read its history in its museum, the peace surrounding the mission blocks out today’s news and sparks a cavalcade of unconnected memories. Some I’d rather forget. Others are poignant.

I also remember the irreverence of Mark Twain in his writings about religion. In his 1896 essay, The Lowest Animal, he wrote: “Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.”

Morning light is gone

It was approaching 11 a.m. Families still trickled into the church. The morning light was long gone. I shoulder my camera bag and head for my car. A few families are arriving for their Saturday picnics. They’re taking their places south of the church at the barbecue grills under the mesquite wood ramadas. Someone has an early start. I can smell the aroma of meat dripping juices into the flames.

The hill east of San Xavier offers one of the best vistas from which to study the church’s architecture. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Historic churches like the missions in Arizona and California are among my favorite destinations. Their architecture and peaceful courtyards and history are like an ancient magic.

Maybe the churches’ patient ghosts are trying to teach something to this independent soul.

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Feb 2nd, 2010

One Comment to 'Historic Church in Southern Arizona is a Visual, Religious Beacon'

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  1. Peggy Hodges said,

    Wonderful story, Mike. It brought back memories of my early days in Arizona. San Xavier was one of the first trips down south. A very special place with a long history.

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