I was totally unprepared for the sight of the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson. My pre-conceived notion of an old mission was perhaps a small nondescript adobe structure. That mental picture could not have been farther from the truth. The Catholic mission itself was founded in 1692; the current building, also known as “The White Dove of the Desert” took 14 years to build and was completed in 1797 . A masterpiece of construction, it is considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. Until 1854 with the Gasden Purchase, the mission building was located in Mexico.
A large reconstruction effort was initiated in 1992, and continues today as funds become available.
The building remains unfinished. One legend suggests that early taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, so the builders chose to leave one dome unfinished. Another legend is that the tower is being left unfinished until the “Excellent Builder” will come to direct its completion.
Much of the manual labor was accomplished through the hard work of the native tribe, the O’odham. Children of the tribe still attend the school on the grounds and services are still held weekly in the sanctuary.
The interior is even more impressive than the exterior, featuring Baroque styling.
As you enter the huge carved mesquite doors, your senses are flooded by the brilliant colors of the paintings, carvings, frescoes and statues. The interior is richly decorated with ornaments showing a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs. Chapels sit to each side of the sanctuary. The dome towers 52 feet above the floor.
The mission is surrounded by gardens and courtyards. In the parking lot out front, O’odham tribe members prepare native foods such as fry bread to sell to the many visitors.
We could not pass up the chance for fry bread, one of our favorite treats.
In the nearby San Xavier Plaza, more Native Americans sell their handicrafts. Ron purchased a pair of turquoise earrings for me from Joe Begay, a Navajo. Joe is a master of trades including acting, singing and silversmithing. He showed us photos from his acting roles. One of the first was Little House on the Prairie. He says he was “lucky to be allowed to play an Indian. Until then, all Indians were played by whites”. He has also had parts in many movies, including Dances with Wolves.