In 1700, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino put down the foundations for a church at the village of Bac, on the Santa Cruz River near modern Tucson, to be named after his patron saint, St. Francis Xavier.
Mission San Xavier del Bac is also known as the White Dove of the Desert. The del Bac part of the name is Tohono O'odham, meaning place where water appears. The mission was in an area of natural springs and the Santa Cruz River.
San Xavier uses classic form for churches
Like many European churches, San Xavier design is classic cruciform - meaning a it's cross-shaped. The date of 1797 found above the sacristy is believed to be the finish date of San Xavier.
San Xavier reconstruction
Over the years, Patronato San Xavier has raised more than $11 million for preservation and restoration work at the mission, including a multi-year project to restore the altar area and interior artwork. The Patronato is trying to raise more money to restore the East tower.
The mission is built of low-fire clay brick, stone and lime mortar. The church's interior is filled with original statuary and murals.
End of the world
Legend has it that when the cat catches the mouse that the world will end, although no one appears to know why this scene is depicted on the front of the mission. Notice there are two cats and two mice, one of each in the bottom corners. - Arizona Daily Star
Lightning strike destroyed minitower
In 1939, lightning struck and destroyed the 18th-century lantern atop the west tower. It was rebuilt out of common house brick and mortar and rebuilt again 2007 using threaded fiberglass reinforcing rods in the minitower legs so that metal rods would no longer attract lightning.
East tower never completed
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 unfinished, its owners didn't have to pay tax on it.
• A cyclone blew the dome off the east tower, and it was never replaced.
- Jim Griffith for the Arizona Daily Star
Mission San Xavier del Bac's grotto hill
Many visitors like to combine a tour of the two-century-old church with a walk around nearby Grotto Hill.
An easy quarter-mile path winds around the hill just east of the mission — affording an overview of the grounds and big vistas of the mountain ranges near Tucson.
The hill is named informally for a small religious shrine tucked into a rocky grotto on its flanks. The shrine is a place of quiet reflection and prayer for some who walk the trail.
Others stop to peer up at a cross atop the hill.
As you amble clockwise around the trail, you’ll see the mission and grounds, the Tucson Mountains, the Catalina Mountains, parts of the Rincon Mountains and Mount Wrightson. - Arizona Daily Star
Mission abandoned and damaged
The mission was abandoned briefly from 1837 to 1859, falling into disrepair until the Diocese of Santa Fe began fixing the church. In 1887 an earthquake knocked down the mortuary wall and damaged parts of the church.
Tornadoes spare mission
The first fatal tornado in state history struck Aug. 27, 1964. The tornado skirted San Xavier Mission and rolled through an Indian village, destroying four homes. One family was particularly hard hit: Two family members were killed by the tornado and eight were injured.
A second tornado killed one person and injured 40 on June 23, 1974 as it tore through a mobile-home park near the San Xavier Mission, touching ground for about three minutes, long enough to demolish 19 mobile homes.
No it's not a mummy
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. 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. - Jim Griffith for the Arizona Daily Star