Meet The Missions
At San Xavier and Tumacácori, Spanish colonial history is on full display.
In the late 1600s, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary from Italy, began his work in the area he called the “Pimería Alta,” across what is now northern Sonora, Mexico, and Southern Arizona. This region would end up being Kino’s home for the next 24 years and on March 15, 1711, where he would die.
Over those nearly two-and-a-half decades, he would cover more than 50,000 square miles on horseback, create extensive maps of the region, help establish ranching and introduce many European crops in the area. He established more than 20 missions, including a few that still exist today in Southern Arizona – San Xavier del Bac and Tumacacori.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
Sixteen miles south of Tucson off Interstate 19, the current Mission San Xavier del Bac is about two miles away from the original spot dedicated by Kino in 1692. However, the current location, built by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation under the direction of the Franciscan order between 1783 and 1787, is still in use by the tribe, with masses held daily. The structure has gone through some tough times, including a well-meaning, but disastrous renovation attempt in the middle of the 20th century when a layer of cement was applied to the exterior of the building which ended up trapping moisture inside the walls, weakening the structure. The Patronato San Xavier was established in 1978, raising money for an extensive and more traditionally appropriate renovation that still continues.
The great news is that the renovation has largely returned the church, considered the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States, to its original splendor, with beautiful white walls that call to you on the drive up and colorful murals inside reflecting the collision of culture and traditions that has happened here for centuries. Whether you take one of the free docent-led tours or simply walk around the grounds by yourself, once you enter the giant carved doors of San Xavier, you’ll understand why this place is so special to the Tohono O’odham Nation, Tucsonans in general, and is such a wildly popular destination for visitors.
Video: Mission San Xavier del Bac
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Mission San José de Tumacácori was established in 1691, making it the oldest Jesuit mission site in Southern Arizona and about a year older than its neighbor to the north, San Xavier. Similar to San Xavier, the Tumacácori mission exists today in a slightly different location from where it was founded. Some of the native people of the area rebelled against the mission and its accompanying Spanish settlers in 1751, the Jesuits were banned from the region by the Spanish king in 1767, and by 1786, two neighboring missions - Calabazas and Guevavi - were abandoned (the remains of those missions are not open to the public, but can be seen in limited reserved tours).
Around 1800, plans were made to build a large church on the east side of the Santa Cruz River, but construction was slow-going for a variety of reasons and by 1848, the mission was abandoned, falling into disrepair. In 1908, restoration and preservation began when the site was named a national monument by President Teddy Roosevelt.
Now, the remains of what Father Kino started here tell a story of strife, rebirth, faith, and life in the Pimeria Alta; this is also true at San Xavier. Visitors of all ages will take away something from either or both of these Southern Arizona landmarks, from simply being awestruck by fact that these buildings still remain, to a better understanding of the conflict that comes when one culture in all its complexity attempts to influence another with its own diverse set of traditions and understandings, a story that still continues today.