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.


Next Up:  Freeway Art in Arizona