San Xavier del Bac is a beautiful mission church just south of Tucson in the Sonoran desert. It’s a National Historic Landmark known as the “White Dove of the Desert.”
Posing akin to a European artifact, San Xavier is a mission masterpiece. It’s a historic Franciscan mission church set in quiet splendor on an Indian reservation. San Xavier has been an architectural landmark and spiritual center for the Papago Indians since 1797.
The partly restored mission is the finest example of Spanish Colonial and Mexican Baroque architecture in the United States. It’s simply not something you’d expect to see in this country. Inside, it boasts colorful frescos, sculptures, an elaborate retable (a devotional panel), and chapels.
Your first view of the church is startling. Driving south on I-19 from Tucson, you enter the San Xavier Indian reservation. The mission is a gleaming white monolith in a tan landscape.
It’s unnaturally white, contrasting sharply with the desert palette of pinks, beiges, and greens. The twin towered church with a massive carved entrance portal stands alone on the plain.
History of San Xavier
The mission was originally built in the 1730s or 1740s. It was founded in 1692 by Eusebio Francisco Kino, a legendary Jesuit figure.
He laid the first foundation stone and named the mission after St. Francis Xavier. a modern missionary. Kino’s vision was to spread Christianity to the local Tohono Oʼodham people.
Missions were an important part of Spanish colonization efforts. The Spanish sought to convert the semi nomadic Native Americans into a permanent European-style settlement.
The present church, however, dates from the end of the 18th century and was built by the Franciscan Order. This makes it the oldest intact European structure in Arizona.
The Franciscan Order is based on the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. He was Francis was an ascetic monk who dressed in rags.
He dedicated his life to poverty, humility, simplicity, and anti-materialism. Francis espoused a philosophy in which the Earth and all living creatures were respected as God’s creation, not viewed as inherently sinful.
An unknown architect planned a cruciform Baroque church with two towers and a central dome. It was slightly old fashioned for the time in Spain, but still current throughout Mexico.
Facade Of San Xavier
The main building of the domed church is composed of adobe bricks. They were set in lime mortar plastered over with white stucco.
The facade is flanked by terraced towers. But they’re asymmetrical. The east tower is missing a dome and lantern.
Why is the right tower unfinished? There are myriad legends.
Most poetically, the two towers are said to reflect the teaching that the gospel is a duty without end.
According to another story, the church’s architect fell to his death from the tower, which was then curtailed as a memorial to him. Yet another tale is the Franciscans simply ran out of money or that the mission wanted to avoid taxes.
The piece de resistance of the facade is the spectacular earth toned stone portal that extends to the roof. It’s an astonishing composition with niches holding female saints (identity unknown).
The portal is alive with outsize scrolls, shells, and segmented pilasters. Decorative elements represent nature, like the pomegranates. There are also the typical Baroque volutes (scroll shaped forms) near the top.
There’s also cat and mouse sculptures. They glower eternally at each other from their respective sides. Papago legend holds that the world will end when the cat catches the mouse.
Interior of San Xavier
Like most European churches, the interior of San Xavier is laid out in the shape of a Latin cross. Inside, there’s a density of decoration.
The mission is intimate and bedecked with frescos. Angels are everywhere.
Some of them are quite unusual, not what you find in typical European Baroque Architecture true. It’s as if a tribe of folk artists were making up Baroque motifs.
In some of the paintings, you’ll spy tipsy flower vases, coiled snakes, images of Franciscan saints, and cheery trompe l’oeil frames around paintings of biblical scenes.
A painted cord runs around the walls. It echoes the rope belt of St. Francis’ own brown habit. There are 7 oval and saucer shaped domes above.
The only part of the interior not dominated by frescoes is the extraordinarily elaborate bronze Retablo Mayor behind the altar. There’s battalion of saints. The figure of St. Francis Xavier, in bright white, dominates the center.
The extravagance of ornate details seem to send the message to the Indians — and to all visitors — about how big and lofty Christianity was.
Unfortunately, you can’t get up close to see the retable at present, which was a bit of a disappointment.
There are two chapels to each side of the main altar.
On one side of the main altar is the Chapel of the Sorrowful Mother. Mary wears a shimmering blue dress, a mantilla, and a crown.
In the Suffering Savior Chapel, you’ll a fresco of The Last Supper. As is typical, a betraying Judas peeks out at the viewer.
There’s also a carved effigy of St. Francis Xavier in the west altar. It’s a particular source of devotion for the Papagos.
His bed is made up with real pillows and sheets. To this day, on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the people process with the statue of St. Francis Xavier.
Legend holds that only those with a pure heart have the power to raise the saint’s head.
The mission also has a small mortuary chapel, patio, and convent.
In 1978, a group called Patronato was formed. Their mission is to protect and conserve the church, and they’re working to build an endowment.
In 1992, master conservators from Rome were brought in to work on San Xavier. While there, they trained four members of the Tohono O’odham Nation in their discipline.
That painstaking work includes cleaning statues and paintings by carefully removing decades of soot and grime from wax candles.
To date, over $12 million has been raised and spent. The overreaching conservation philosophy is one of using tradition materials with minimal intervention.
Practical Information For Visiting San Xavier
Address: 1950 West San Xavier Road, Tucson AZ 85746. The mission is only 9 miles south of Tucson. To get here from Tucson, take I-19 south, get off on San Xavier Road at Exit 92, and head west.
Hours: 9:00 am to 4:00 pm daily
Entry: Admission is free. If you can’t make it, click here for a virtual tour.
The bad news is that right now isn’t the best time to visit San Xavier because of ongoing restoration and scaffolding. There is limited visiting, which will hopefully change. The eastern tower is under scaffolding as it’s being re-plastered.
Access to the Church is currently limited to an area just inside the front doors for viewing, prayers, and placing prayer candles. Only a limited number of visitors are permitted inside at any one time.
A little black sign greets visitors as they walk into the San Xavier: “Welcome to this house of worship. Please speak quietly, so as not to disturb those in prayer, God bless you.”
The gift shop in the mission has little of interest. But the Indian Arts and Crafts Bazaar on San Xavier Plaza (to the left as you approach the church) sells rugs, baskets, jewelry, and other Native American crafts.
This is a good place to try the local specialty, fry bread tacos. You can get one at WA:K Snack Shop across the street.
There’s also a nearby hill, Grotto Hill, which you can climb for good views of the mission. Though there’s a sign warning you that’s it’s private property at the summit.
Mass: The mission is an active parish. Masses are held Saturdays at 5 pm and Sundays at 10 am and 11:30 am. Right now, they are held outdoors at the inner courtyard of the Church and are limited to 25 attendees.
The mission usually has docent led tours when mass is not in session. They are available Monday through Saturday 9:30 to 12:30.
I think the docent tours would really improve your visit. But check before you go to make sure they’re happening because they were cancelled during the pandemic.
You can also book a 3 hour Get Your Guide tour that includes San Xavier and the nearby town of Tombstone.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to San Xavier del Bac Mission. You may enjoy these other United States city guides:
- 1 day itinerary for Portland Maine
- 2 day itinerary for Philadelphia
- 3 day itinerary for Boston
- 1 day in Hanover New Hampshire
- 35 Landmarks in Boston
- 1 day itinerary for Cambridge
- Guide to Salem Massachusetts
- Guide To Boulder Colorado
- 1 day itinerary for Denver
- 2 day itinerary for Cleveland Ohio
- Best Things To Do in Pittsburgh
If you’d like to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, pin it for later.