Tumacácori National Historical Park, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012 in Tubac, AZ. 

Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star

Tumacácori National Historical Park, a couple of miles south of Tubac, is well worth a visit. Here you can experience the other great institution of New Spain’s northern frontier — the mission. More than just a series of churches, the mission system was intended to convert native peoples into Catholic subjects of the Spanish crown. It was also a strong economic force, producing a surplus of crops and livestock. Here at Tumacácori, the visitor can learn about and experience many facets of this vital colonial institution.

Father Kino visited Tumacácori in 1691, and founded a mission under the patronage of San Cayetano (St. Cajetan), whose kneeling statue is now in the Park museum. After the Pima Rebellion of 1751, the mission was moved to the west side of the river, and dedicated to San José (St. Joseph).

The Jesuits built a small, hall-shaped church, whose outlines can be seen just to the east of the present church. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain, and replaced by Franciscans, who started to build a new, larger church. Construction started in 1802, but lack of funds delayed completion until about 1928. This is the church we now see.

In the 19th century, Apache raids made life on this frontier more and more difficult. A devastating raid in December of 1848 spelled the end of the communities of Tumacácori and Tubac, at least for a while. Folks from Tumacácori moved downstream to San Xavier, taking their saints’ statues with them.

So much for history and for the church itself, but there’s more. A self-guided tour takes the visitor through many of the social and economic aspects of the mission – the acequia or irrigation ditch, the granary, a lime kiln, and the like. A recent project is the mission orchard, stocked with cuttings of heirloom fruit trees that were introduced by the missionaries. This is truly living history!

A recently renovated museum adds to the experience at the Park, with dioramas, artifacts, and even the religious statues that were carried off to San Xavier in 1849. By the time you’ve visited the whole site, you’ve been given a well-rounded look at this once-vital foothold of Spain on the frontier. But there’s more.

From now through April, a traditional crafts demonstrator will be at the Park daily, with two demonstrators on Saturday and Sunday. You can visit with tortilla makers, paper flower makers, and O’odham basket weavers. And don’t forget the big Tumacácori Fiesta, held annually on the first weekend of December, when you can do the same things that folks would have done in Colonial times – attend Mass, buy, sell, eat special foods, and visit. Finally, there’s a well-stocked regional bookstore in the Visitor’s Center. What more could one want?