White Dove of the Desert
Renovated and unveiled San Xavier del Bac Mission glistens in the Sonora Desert, south of Tucson. For the first time in years no scaffolding obscured the front or west tower of the famed, "White Dove of the Desert."
On our previous visits the mission was undergoing major work to preserve the historic gem. I got very excited when I learned that a portion of the work was complete and the scaffolding removed. Plans were for work on the east tower to start in mid-March, restoration projected to take three years. We would have a chance to see the entire front facade unblemished by construction.
A nearly cloudless sky was all the enticement we needed to head to the mission in the late afternoon. Activity around the popular destination was winding up for the day. No buses waiting for camera-toting passengers idled in the parking lot. Only a couple of Tohono O’odham families were still packing up from their food booths. There would be no fry bread or Indian tacos for us this visit.
Built from 1783 – 1797, the church frequently is proclaimed to be the finest example of mission architecture in the United States. Records reveal little about the architect and artisans responsible for the original construction. Influences of Moorish, Byzantine and Late Mexican Renaissance architecture blend to create the strikingly unique edifice. We can only surmise why the east tower was never completed.
The Tohono O’odham people lived in the settlement of Bac ("place were the water appears") long before Father Kino, the Jesuit missionary and explorer, arrived in 1692. By the time the present church was built the Franciscans were in charge of the mission. Still today San Xavier del Bac serves the Tohono O’odham as a parish church within the Diocese of Tucson. Services are open to all and the church is open every day of the year.
The building has a long history of respectful care followed by neglect and restoration. For three decades in the 1800s priests were sent home to Spain. Parishioners safeguarded church furnishings in their homes but the building fell into disuse.
The latest restoration began with the interior in 1992, a six-year project. Once the elaborate detail of the ornate interior was completed work begun on the exterior to stabilize the walls and domes. Viewing the newly completed west tower we see the successful use of a mud plaster "recipe" used by the Tohono O’odham peoples. When baked in the Arizona sun, the coating gives a bright white finish and resists the affects of the harsh desert climate.
A museum details history of the mission and preservation work. I’m fascinated with the video showing the intricate skills required by conservators. The knowledge, patience and attention to detail are to be admired.
As we take photos we can’t help but compare the two towers; eroded plaster, gaping holes and faded paint of the east tower increases appreciation of the flawless renovated west tower. We can imagine how magnificent it will be when all is complete.
We sometimes hear the gasps of wonder as visitors step into the church for the first time. Every surface seems to resonate with color: altars, statuary, arches, retablos, frescoes, carvings. Some have called this the "Sistine Chapel of North America." It’s quite a compilation of baroque and folk art. Whether one says a prayer and lights a candle or sits quietly observing the features this is a time to pause and contemplate.
Our visit ends as the setting sun brushes the walls with flecks of gold.
When You Go: San Xavier del Bac Mission is approximately 12 miles south of Tucson, exit 92 from I-19. The church is open daily 8am-5pm, museum open 8am-4:30pm. A gift shop is open 8am-5pm every day except Easter Sunday and Christmas. Admission is free, donations gratefully accepted. Please remember this is a place of worship, be respectful.