Big Jim: San Xavier - Nothing but the FAQs

2013-07-23T00:00:00Z Big Jim: San Xavier - Nothing but the FAQsJim Griffith, Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

These are some of the questions I hear most often when I take visitors through San Xavier:

Why was the east tower never finished?

Because the builders ran out of money. The whole church is unfinished – you can even see bits of murals penciled – but never painted – on the interior walls. However, over the years people have figured out their own answers – legends, if you will – and here are some of the most common. All are great stories, which is why they are told and retold. But there is no documentary evidence for any of them:

• Someone fell off the tower, and work was halted.

• If a building was finished, its owners didn't have to pay tax on it.

• A cyclone blew the dome off the east tower, and it was never replaced.

Good stories, all.

Speaking about the east tower, funds are even now being collected toward its repair (not completion), and work should start any year now. You're welcome to pitch in!

Another question involves the cat and mouse high up on the facade of the church.

All I can say about them is “Yep, there they are.” After having seen hundreds of Mexican baroque churches, I'm not surprised to find anything worked into the art, but in this case no clues exist as to why those particular critters were put where they are.

There's a great legend that when the cat catches the mouse it will be the end of the world, but that doesn't explain their presence. I have heard reference to a story involving a fight of some kind and a peace treaty, but only from one source.

Inside the church, many visitors see the reclining statue in the glass case in the west transept, and think it's a mummy of some kind. I've even heard answers like “That's the man who built the church.” The real story is even better. It's a statue of the crucified Christ, and was originally at Tumacacori Mission (now Tumacacori National Historical Park, partway to Nogales).

When that community was abandoned in 1849 due to Apache raiding, the people moved to San Xavier, bringing their saints with them. Along the way, the statue of Christ lost its legs. By the 1890s, it was displayed in the west transept as the entombed Christ.

Around the time of War I, the statue was redefined as a reclining St. Francis Xavier, placed in a glass case, and there it remains, the object of considerable popular devotion.

San Francisco Xavier will be the subject of some late summer blogs.

That's not all about San Xavier del Bac, but that's enough for now.

References:

Fontana, Bernard L. "Biography of a Desert Church, the Story of Mission San Xavier del Bac." In The Smoke Signal, No. 3, Tucson: Tucson Corral of Westerners, 1961.

Fontana, Bernard L., "A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier." Tucson: the University of Arizona Press, 2010.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com