Inside Tucson’s Incredible Mission San Xavier del Bac

A spectacular example of Spanish Colonial architecture, the Mission San Xavier del Bac makes a great day trip from Phoenix. Here’s what you must see.

The Mission San Xavier del Bac (about a 10-mile drive outside the city) is a stunning must-see that’s a testament to Tucson’s rich history

The site is a historic Spanish Catholic mission on an Indian Reservation.

And it’s definitely not what you’d expect on a drive through the desert when the white towers gleam in the distance.

The Mission San Xavier Del Bac

Mission San Xavier

Mission San Xavier

Tucson is about 41 percent Hispanic or Latino. It’s known for Sonoran-style Mexican food and Mariachi musicians. And the Mission is a stunning site to dig into this history.

The Mission San Xavier Del Bac is called the white dove of the desert. And that’s a perfect description of its bright entrance illuminated against a cloudy sky.

The entrance is surrounded by cacti and rolling hills. The facade is Moorish-inspired with decorations made from dazzling white stucco.

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary of Italian descent, founded the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1692.

It was built in the midst of a centuries-old settlement of the Sobaipuri O’odham people.

But the original church – built about 2 miles north of the present-day structure – was razed in 1770 during an Apache raid.

A turbulent history

A Guide To Tucson's Mission San Xavier del Bac

A Guide To Tucson's Mission San Xavier del Bac

The mission that stands today was built by two Franciscan fathers between 1783 and 1797, and is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The fathers borrowed 7,000 pesos from a Sonoran rancher and hired architect Ignacio Gaona who employed a large local workforce.

After Mexican Independence in 1821, all Spanish-born priests were banned. The resident Franciscans left San Xavier and the mission began to decay.

But local Indians preserved what they could. And the church was re-opened again and repaired after it became part of the U.S.

The Franciscans returned in 1913 and the mission later saw extensive restorations that helped restore its historic splendor. The cement-based stucco from the 1980s was removed and replaced with a traditional mud plaster made with pulp from the prickly pear cactus. This mix allows excess water to escape and the structure breathes better.

The mission boasts some 200,000 visitors and pilgrims every year – and it’s still run by the Franciscans.

San Xavier is the most outstanding example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the U.S. And it still serves the same native community it was built for.

Inside the mission – and the mummy question

A Guide To Tucson's Mission San Xavier del Bac

Mission San Xavier

The stark desert contrasts with the sheer scale of the magnificent mission.

The facade and the church itself are lined with references to the Franciscan cord, the knots in a friar’s belt that represent poverty, chastity and obedience.

There are also two cats and two mice at the entrance, a reference to a legend claiming the world will end when the cat catches the mouse.

Enormous mesquite-wood doors lead into the church’s cool interior. Far from the marble-filled cathedrals of Europe, it’s a bright space that feels very colorful.

The designs appear mostly in their original state. There are dazzling paintings and frescoes in Mexican and Native American motifs.

It’s like stepping back into the 18th century.

A Guide To Tucson's Mission San Xavier del Bac

Mission San Xavier

The artwork was likely done by artists from Mexico, while the sculpture was created in guild workshops and brought by donkey to the mission.

And there’s a curiosity in the mission’s west chapel that many people at first think is a mummy.

But the reclining statue is actually the crucified Christ. The statue lost its legs in transport and was first displayed as the entombed Christ. Later on, it was redefined as the reclining St. Francis Xavier and sealed in a glass case. It remains there today as an object of pilgrims’ devotions.

Outside the church, the east tower is missing a dome.

There are several legends explaining why builders left the church unfinished.

One legend says that someone fell off the tower and work was halted. Others say a cyclone blew the dome off, or that it was left unfinished to dodge taxes.

But the real reason is more realistic: the builders ran out of money. Efforts are now underway to raise funds for a complete restoration.

A walk up Grotto Hill and some fry bread

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Mission Fry Bread

After visiting the mission, head into the sunshine towards nearby Grotto Hill.

This small, rocky hill offers a walking path and gorgeous views of the mission grounds. It’s surrounded by the cacti-sprinkled desert and the Catalina and Tucson Mountains.

Notice the small religious shrines tucked into the rock as you make your way up the quarter-mile path.

Back in the parking lot, grab some Indian fry bread tacos from one of the smoky stalls.

They’re warm and delicious, topped with honey or cheesy beans.

And they make a great lunch that ends a day of exploring this vibrant part of Arizona’s history.

Read A Guide to Barrio Viejo for more Tucson hidden gems! 

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