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.
My father and I take road trips every year when I visit Arizona – and Tucson is an easy option.
It’s only a two-hour drive from Phoenix on the I-10. Yet it’s got an entirely different vibe with its small-town feel and artsy atmosphere.
We hit the road and pass yellow wildflowers, an ostrich farm and yellow Union Pacific trains carrying freight.
And we’re still in Tucson in time for breakfast. We get lattes and set off to explore Tucson’s Barrio Viejo neighborhood, known for its brightly-colored adobe houses, Mexican cantinas and hip eateries.
Tucson is about 60 miles from the Mexican border, with a population of some half a million residents. Founded by the Spanish, Tucson was included in the state of Sonora after Mexico gained independence. It was later acquired by the U.S. under the Gadsden Purchase.
Today, Tucson is about 41 percent Hispanic or Latino. It’s known for Sonoran-style Mexican food and Mariachi musicians.
Barrio Viejo is a colorful look at this Mexican heritage. And we walk around the colorful adobes with their Instagram-perfect doorways to soak in the atmosphere.
Then with the afternoon still young, we decide on a 10-mile drive to nearby Mission San Xavier del Bac. The site is a historic Spanish Catholic mission on an Indian Reservation just outside the city.
And it’s another testament to Tucson’s rich history. Although it’s not what you’d expect driving through the desert and seeing the white towers in the distance.
THE MISSION SAN XAVIER DEL BAC
It’s called thewhite dove of the desert. And that’s a perfect description of the mission’s bright facade illuminated against a cloudy sky.
We walk towards the entrance 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.
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
As we walk towards the entryway, 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 representing 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.
We walk past the enormous mesquite-wood doors into the church’s cool interior. Far from the marble-filled cathedrals of Europe, it’s a brighter space that feels lively and 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.
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 some people at first regard as 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.
As we head out of the church, I wonder why 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 FRY BREAD
After visiting the mission, we walk into the sunshine towards nearby Grotto Hill. This small, rocky hill offers a walking path and gorgeous views of the mission grounds. We’re surrounded by the cacti-sprinkled desert and the Catalina and Tucson Mountains.
We later notice small religious shrines tucked into the rock as we make our way up the quarter-mile path.
Back in the parking lot, we 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.