An imposing church in the Sonoran Desert – Tucson, AZ

Continuing our investigation of missions in the Sonoran desert, we visited the only remaining intact mission in Arizona.  It’s an imposing white-washed structure in the distance along I-19, approximately nine miles south of downtown Tucson.

Mission San Xavier Del Bac stands as an iconic building of the southwest, and one of the two remaining missions in Arizona established by Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino.  The other is Mission San José de Tumacácori, which we discovered during our recent visit to Tubac, AZ.

MIssion San Xavier
The mission church dubbed the “White Dove of the Sonoran Desert”

This church dates from the late 1700’s, when southern Arizona was part of New Spain.  In 1783, Franciscan missionary Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain was able to begin construction on the structure using money borrowed from a Sonoran rancher.  He hired an architect, Ignacio Gaona, and a large workforce of O’odham Native Americans to build the original church.

MIssion San Xavier
Facade of the church with the unfinished (and unrestored) east tower on the right

Fast forward to today, the mission is still an active parish serving the needs of the local Wa:k (San Xavier District) village, which resides on the Tohono O’odham reservation.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
The Baroque architecture of the church was influenced by Byzantine and Moorish design

On our visit we joined a one-hour guided tour and learned a lot about the Mission’s history and architectural details.  Our docent talked about features of the Baroque architecture style, including playful dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbling, and the overall sense of balance.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

We were in awe the moment we stepped into the church – it was like no other we had seen before.  Looking around, we felt like we’d stepped back in time, transported to an authentic 18th Century space.

Interior of Mission San Xavier del Bac
The overall sense of balance is obvious as you enter the church.  For example, a faux door painted on the right wall counters a real door on the left

The church’s interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings.

Altar- Mission San Xavier del Bac


The interior was covered floor to ceiling with elaborately-painted and sculpted surfaces, and our necks were aching from looking up so much during the tour.  It contained numerous references to the Franciscan cord, both on the facade and throughout the church. 

Choir Loft- Mission San Xavier del Bac

The shell, a symbol of pilgrimage acknowledging the patron saint of Spain, is replicated throughout the structure – in window treatments, the sanctuary, the facade and on other details within the interior.



Mission San Xavier del Bac
An angel writes down the names of the newly baptized


The only picture in existence of Mother Mary changing the diaper of Jesus

Thanks to a group of concerned citizens called the Patronato, the ongoing restoration and preservation work was impressive.  In a five-year program, an international team of conservators cleaned, removed, repainted and repaired the interior paintings and art sculptures. The interior rescue effort has significantly helped to preserve its original features.

Mission san Xavier
A conservator uses a syringe to inject adhesive behind peeling paint pigments

Not only was this beautiful place recognized as a U.S. National Landmark in 1963, it continues its original purpose of ministering to the religious needs of residents of the San Xavier Reservation.  I came back and attended a Sunday service and discovered a different feel when the church was filled with parishioners and visitors.

MIssion San Xavier del Bac
A line formed to pay homage to Saint Francis
Saint Francis
Locals pray to Saint Francis for intersessionary prayers to God

After the mass I continued my exploration outside and walked around the mission.  The church is best appreciated in person, for my pictures cannot capture details of the amazing works of art.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Now I understand why this mission church is not only a pilgrimage site and a photographers delight, it’s also a special place to visit, pray, and enjoy a place of peace.




  1. We will love to visit here when we make it to AZ. We loved the missions in San Antonio, TX and will put this one on our todo list for sure. Thanks!

  2. Wow, this brought back memories for me. Went there as a little girl with my Grandmother and favorite Aunt. It is as beautiful as I remembered it to be. Thank you for sharing!

  3. In all our travels around Arizona we’ve never visited the mission and after seeing your pictures I’m sorry. What a beautiful place, it seems to glow in the desert sun. Its on my list now for sure, thanks for taking us there with you.

  4. Absolutely stunning! Hubby travels to Mexico on business quite a bit, and this looks so much like many of the cathedrals he has visited, even in some very small towns. Such a rich and beautiful heritage and loved your photos!

  5. I am not a religious person but I sure do appreciate beautiful architecture! That is one gorgeous church especially with the amazing blue AZ sky to set it off! Thank you for taking me back to this beautiful place!

  6. You captured some beautiful pictures of the mission MonaLisa. Joe and I spent a quiet morning there several years ago.

  7. I loved that Mission. We spent a couple of hours touring the area. Actually we took one of the tours of the Mission. So interesting. Your photos are super.

  8. What a fantastic post. I have loved all of the missions you have shown but this one is so amazing. Your pictures are really beautiful. I love that it is being so well cared for and is still in use. I must see it and attending a mass must have been so wonderful. What a great day!

    • The mission is a gem tucked away in the reservation. I did not expect what I saw when I entered it. It is really beautiful and the artwork on the walls are amazing considering that they were done more than a century ago!

  9. So beautiful! I can’t believe we’ve never been there, but I will remedy that on our next visit to Tucson. Whenever we visit a mission or church, I always take time to sit quietly in meditation. Your photos really convey a sense of the beauty and peace of this special place.

  10. I loved the White Dove of the Desert … a definite return stop to do the tour and spend more time there. Yes, best appreciated in person, but your photos do a great job of capturing its beauty.

Comments are closed.