Big Jim: The Mission Church at Caborca, Sonora

2014-04-25T00:00:00Z Big Jim: The Mission Church at Caborca, SonoraJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I’ve often said that the Pimería Alta is one big natural, historical and cultural region, stretching from the Gila River south to the Río Concepción, and from the San Pedro River to the Gulf of California. The church we’ll virtually (and virtuously) visit today provides proof of that statement.

The restored and replastered mission church of La Purísima Concepción de Caborca. The convento wing is at the left; a balancing arcade is to the right. Jim Griffith photo.

Take a look at the photograph of the church of La Purísima Concepción de Caborca. Doesn’t it look like a squattier version of San Xavier del Bac? It should, because it was designed and built by the same mason/architect, Ignacio Gaona.

Caborca has had a tragic history. Its first priest, Father Francisco Xavier Saeta, was martyred by O’odham in 1695. A later missionary, Father Tomás Tello met the same fate in the Pima Rebellion of 1751. And in April, 1857, the mission church was the scene of a bloody battle, when a group of American filibusters under Henry Alexander Crabb invaded northwest Sonora. They were defeated at the mission church, and all save one were executed. It is for this reason that Caborca’s name was officially changed to “Heroic Caborca,” for this reason that April 6 is celebrated with a civic fiesta in Caborca, and for this reason that Mexican federal funds were spent on rebuilding and preserving the mission church.

As if human depredations were not enough, in 1915 a flood of the Río Concepción, which runs just behind the church, took out the sanctuary wall and the south transept.

The sanctuary arch by the main altar at Caborca, showing the recently uncovered and restored murals. As is the case in San Xavier del Bac, this church is tied together by a sculptural Franciscan cord, clearly visible here. Jim Griffith photo.

This was restored in 1957 under the auspices of the Mexican government. The work of restoration continued with the support of a local patronato under the direction of Gloria Elena Santini de Vanegas. This work is now finished. The original mural paintings have been uncovered and restored and some of the original saints have been returned to the sanctuary. A small museum has been installed in the convento wing, and the exterior has a new coat of whitewash. Although the church does not function as a regular parish church anymore, it is now frequently used for weddings.

While there are strong similarities between the Caborca and San Xavier churches, the former building lacks the exuberant decoration of the latter. In the ten years between the construction of the two churches (1797-1808), the baroque spirit of San Xavier had given way to a more restrained sense of decor. But the church is there, and is well worth a visit.

Next blog: the battle of Caborca in history and legend.

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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

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