San Xavier Mission outside of Tucson, Ariz., was founded by the Jesuits in 1692. The current church dates to 1783 and was constructed by the Franciscans, who operate it to this day.

Catholic missions add to charm of historic Arizona

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2011



Like North America’s largest gem and mineral show every February. Like Kitt Peak National Observatory, which has the largest collection of telescopes — 26 — in the world. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, though not associated, is nearby at Mt. Graham.

For snowbirders and those who simply love the myriad charms of the American southwest — from adobe architecture to jagged mountains and sweeping desert vistas — you can add the Spanish Catholic missions between Tucson and the Mexican border.

Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales, a distance of about 100 km, features two significant missions, both national historic sites. There are two other abandoned missions that can also be toured. There is also the presidio (fort) at Tubac, which protected the missions.

These missions form the most northern settlements of a string of 24 stretching well into Mexico’s Sonora state. Southern Arizona, of course, was once part of Mexico. But before that, when these missions were founded, it was part of colonial Spain.

The man who founded the missions was an Italian Jesuit priest named Eusebio Francisco Kino. He was ordered to establish the missions in large part to convert the aboriginal tribes in the region known as the Pimeria Alta (named after the Pima Indians).

But Padre Kino was also a Renaissance man, an explorer, astronomer and poet, who did much to open up and map the area north of the Gulf of California. Riding on horseback and establishing ranches, he has also been called Arizona’s first cowboy.

The two main missions and presidio are open year-round, and can be toured in one full day.

Start at Tucson and head south about 15 km on Interstate 19. (This freeway has test kilometre markings so Canadians should feel right at home.) San Xavier Mission can be clearly seen on the right. While Kino founded San Xavier in 1692, the current church — which dates from 1783 — was constructed by the Franciscans after the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain. The Franciscans still operate it.

The mission’s full name includes the words “del bac” (White Dove of the Desert) and it’s easy to see why. Its white towers glisten among the brown desert and brilliant blue sky. Constructed of low-fire clay brick and lime mortar, its roof has several masonry vaults. It’s considered the best example of Spanish colonial architecture in America. One native Arizonian told me he considers it “Arizona’s best attraction after the Grand Canyon.”

This is a working church, open to the public to tour, with daily Masses, a museum and gift shop.

Almost 60 km south along I-19 is Tumacácori, another national historic site that is more the remnants of a frontier church (never fully built) than a wholly realized community. But even here Masses are held monthly and an historic High Mass is re-enacted (they encourage worshippers to come in costume) every fall.

But it is at Tumacácori where one gets the feel of what an early Spanish mission must have been like as the compound features a garden, cemetery, granary, festival grounds and even a lime kiln to bake the plaster that covered adobe buildings.

The settlement was slowly built using nearby materials like wood. According to our tour guide, the settlers would “go out quickly into Apache country and come back quickly.” The Apaches, she said, weren’t especially vicious but “more irritants, like mosquitoes.” Nevertheless it was Apache raids that forced the mission’s abandonment.

Two nearby but smaller and somewhat isolated missions are Calabazas and Guevavi. The National Park Service provides guided tours but only during the cooler winter months.

You can also tour the presidio in Tubac, just six kilometres north, which also is a lively town filled with art galleries and jewellery shops, selling exquisite stones of the southwest.  

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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