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Tucson's San Xavier del Bac an enduring symbol of borderlands history


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To the east, cars zoom down Interstate 19 toward the U.S.-Mexico border. To the west, the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation sprawls over 2.8 million acres of the Sonoran Desert. To the north lies a city of more than a million people.

Nestled among them, the White Dove of the Desert glows serenely in the afternoon sun.

White Dove of the Desert is the loving nickname for San Xavier del Bac, an active Catholic church that is the oldest surviving European structure in Arizona. Its shining white facade and baroque architecture form one of Tucson's visual trademarks, but it actually sits about 9 miles south of the city in the village of Wa:k in the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham reservation.

The main reservation straddles about 75 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, with 24,000 tribal members living on both sides, putting the tribe in the news lately in opposition to President Donald Trump's promise to build a border wall right through their land.

Arizona has been part of the United States only since the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, and the tribe's ancestors lived in the area for many centuries before that.

In February, tribal vice chairman Verlon Jose said in an interview with NPR, "Over my dead body will we build a wall" on the reservation.

The wall is just the latest intrusion, though, on an indigenous culture that has been here for millennia. The Santa Cruz River Valley, where San Xavier and Tucson are located, bears traces of human occupation going back 12,000 years, archaeologists say, with evidence of continuous settlement and farming for 4,000 years.

The ancestors of the Tohono O'odham — the tribe's name means "desert people" — had been digging irrigation canals and raising maize along the Santa Cruz River ("del bac" means "where water appears") for many generations when Father Eusebio Kino showed up in the late 17th century. The Italian Jesuit established 24 Catholic missions and chapels in the Pimeria Alta (the area now occupied by northern Sonora and southern Arizona) between 1687 and 1711. You can see a larger-than-life statue of Father Kino on horseback at the intersection of Kino Boulevard and E 15th Street in Tucson.

Kino founded the first mission at what would become San Xavier del Bac in 1692, the same year the Puritans in Salem, Mass., were busy executing people for witchcraft. San Xavier was named for St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order.

Construction of the existing church began in 1783 and was finished in 1797. Its Spanish Colonial architecture was designed by Ignacio Gaona, and it was built by O'odham workers. Its intricate, colorful interior decoration was created by unknown artisans.

Today the church draws about 200,000 visitors annually. For some it is a pilgrimage site, for others an architectural and historical landmark. I lived in Tucson for a decade and visited San Xavier often, drawn by its cultural significance, its beauty and its air of timeless calm.

The church has survived an 1887 earthquake, a 1939 lightning strike and more, but time has taken a toll. The Patronato San Xavier was formed in 1978 to support restoration and maintenance of the structures.

During my recent visit, restorers were working inside the church near the altar and outside, where scaffolding surrounded part of the front walls. Docents led tour groups, explaining to visitors that the exterior restoration team is removing the earlier coating of cement plaster, repairing the historic brick beneath and refinishing the surface with traditional lime plaster. In one spot, a window allows you to see the inner structure of the main building's thick walls.

The contrast between exterior and interior has always been one of the charms of San Xavier for me. Outside, wide expanses of smooth white plaster are punctuated by ornate panels around the main door in a sand color that partakes of the surrounding desert. Step inside (at most times of the year, the temperature is notably cooler) into a riot of brilliant color that covers almost every inch, walls and ceilings bursting with statues and paintings of saints and angels. Most were created by those nameless native workers who built the church almost three centuries ago, but one much more recent addition is a wood carving of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman who in 2012 became the first Native American to be named a saint.

Although San Xavier is a Catholic church, it incorporates elements of traditional Tohono O'odham culture. One walled courtyard has a metal gate depicting the Man in the Maze, another name for I'itoi, the O'odham's mischievous creator god, who lives in a cave beneath Baboquivari Peak, a mountain about 50 miles to the southwest.

What attracts me most to San Xavier: It is a symbol of a borderland where cultures come together to create something new, and a place that fits into its desert setting like the saguaros on the hill above it.

In a small chapel to the west of the main church, where a statue of the Virgin in a blue shell-shaped nicho presides over a squadron of saints, I light a candle for a lost loved one. As I turn to walk through the walled desert garden outside the door, a mourning dove swoops just in front of me, lamenting softly. In a palo verde tree an arm's length away, she settles into her nest.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

• 1950 W San Xavier Road, Tucson, Ariz.

• The church is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except during special services. Visitors are asked to respect parishioners attending Mass and to not photograph the interior of the church during services. Admission to the church, gift shop and museum is free; donations accepted.

• For information about San Xavier del Bac, go to For information about Patronato San Xavier's docent-led tours and restoration, go to

Tucson's San Xavier del Bac an enduring symbol of borderlands history 05/04/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 3, 2017 11:02am]
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