On my frequent drives along South Mission Road at this time of year, I see more and more men, women and even children walking towards the old Mission.
Many carry staffs and well as water bottles. They are pilgrims, and once inside the church they will go to the reclining statue of St. Francis Xavier and pay their respects, in preparation for the Fiesta de San Francisco on October 4. There is only one thing strange about this: October 4 is properly the day of a completely different saint – St. Francis of Assisi, the lover of all God’s creation. What’s going on here?
What we have is a reflection of the history of this particular region. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit, was the first to missionize the Pimeria Alta, which is where we live today. St. Francis Xavier was Kino’s personal patron saint, whose image he installed in his chapel at Magdalena, Sonora. Not just any image, but a rather unusual portrayal of Xavier on his deathbed. That statue remained until the 1930s, when it was burned during the Revolution.
In the meantime, the Jesuits were expelled from Sonora in 1767, to be replaced by the Franciscans, who had their own St Francis - Assisi. His feast day is October 4; Xavier’s is December 3. Somehow over the years things got confused so that the lying-down statue of Xavier is celebrated on October 4, the more common standing-up statue, currently located over the altar in the San Xavier Mission, is celebrated on December 3, and poor old Assisi doesn’t get a look-in.
Just to complicate things further, in 1966, Father Kino’s bones were discovered in Magdalena and placed on permanent display in the main plaza. It was only logical for some folks to identify the statue of the dead man in the church with the dead man in the plaza. And so Father Kino entered into the lore of the composite San Francisco.
San Francisco, Kino’s statue, and the devotions centered around him are the subject of many legends. Here’s one: If you talk with older Sonorans on either side of the border you will hear that Father Kino brought the original statue to Magdalena, on his way to installing it in the church he was planning to build at San Xavier del Bac. However, when they reached Magdalena, the men carrying the statue set it down and couldn’t pick it up again. In this way the saint indicated his desire to stay in Magdalena. This story is not unique; similar legends about statues choosing their villages of residence have been collected all over Sonora, throughout Mexico, and in Europe. We’ll have more about San Francisco statue in the next blog.