Mission San Xavier del Bac

Historic Building Fact Sheet

mission san xavier del bac history

Mission San Xavier del Bac is a historic Spanish Catholic building on the Tohono O’odham Reservation southeast of Tucson. (Oct. 2017) Photo Credit: National Park Service

Need to Know Info

Built1783
Address1950 West San Xavier Road
Tucson, Arizona
Coordinates32°06’25.0″N 111°00’28.7″W
Date Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966
Date Declared NHLOctober 9, 1960

Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded in 1692 by Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, is a historic Spanish Catholic mission located in Arizona that is renowned for its stunning Spanish Colonial architecture and intricate interior decor.

After periods of neglect and disrepair, extensive renovations have restored the mission to its former splendor, allowing it to continue serving the native Tohono O’odham community while standing as the finest example of its architectural style in the United States.

Hosting around 200,000 visitors annually, the mission remains an active church and pilgrimage site that offers a captivating window into the region’s rich heritage.

The In-Depth Story

Mission San Xavier del Bac: A Shining Exemplar of Spanish Colonial Architecture

Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, stands as a remarkable exemplar of Spanish Colonial architecture and an enduring testament to the region’s rich heritage. Nestled about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, Arizona on the Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation, this historic Spanish Catholic mission has withstood the test of time, surviving Apache raids, periods of neglect, and the challenges of the unforgiving desert climate.

Established in 1692 by the Italian Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, San Xavier del Bac was founded amidst a centuries-old settlement of the Sobaipuri O’odham people, a branch of the Akimel or River O’odham who inhabited the banks of the Santa Cruz River. Kino, who founded a chain of Spanish missions throughout the Sonoran Desert region during his tenure in the colonial territory of Pimería Alta under New Spain’s Viceroyalty, named this particular mission in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the renowned Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus.

The original mission church, constructed in 1700 approximately 2 miles from the present site, was built through the labor of the local Pima people. However, its vulnerable location left it susceptible to frequent Apache raids, resulting in interrupted construction until 1756 and eventual destruction by 1770. It was not until 1783 that work on the present mission began under the direction of Franciscan fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz.

Funded by a loan of 7,000 pesos from a Sonoran rancher, the Franciscans enlisted the services of architect Ignacio Gaona, who employed a large workforce of O’odham laborers to construct the church that stands today. Completed in 1797, this imposing structure is widely regarded as the oldest European building in Arizona and a premier example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

The site’s Baroque style is considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States. At least three different artists contributed to the artworks that adorn the church’s interior. The church’s floor plan resembles the classic Latin cross, with a main aisle separated from the sanctuary by the transept, which features chapels at either end. Above the transept, a dome soars to a height of 52 feet, supported by intricate arches and squinches.

In the decades following Mexican independence in 1821, the mission fell into disrepair, with the Mexican government banning Spanish-born priests in 1828 and the last resident Franciscan departing for Spain in 1837. It was only through the efforts of the local O’odham community, who strived to preserve their beloved church, that San Xavier del Bac survived this period of neglect.

With the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, which saw the mission’s territory become part of the United States and the newly established Arizona Territory, San Xavier del Bac embarked on a path of restoration and renewal. In 1859, the Santa Fe Diocese reopened the church, funding repairs through diocesan money and assigning a resident priest to serve the community. The establishment of the Diocese of Tucson in 1868 further solidified the church’s role, with regular services being held once again within its hallowed walls.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mission continued to evolve, with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opening a school for Tohono O’odham children in 1872, the receipt of a $1,000 repair grant in 1895, the addition of more classrooms in 1900, and the return of the Franciscans in 1913. In 1947, the Franciscans further strengthened their commitment to the local community by constructing a new school adjacent to the church.

Extensive restoration efforts, which began in 1992 and continue to this day, have sought to return the mission’s interior to its historic splendor. The removal of cement-based stucco applied in the 1980s, which had trapped moisture and damaged the interior decorations, paved the way for the use of traditional mud plaster incorporating pulp from the prickly pear cactus. This innovative approach not only allows excess moisture to escape, thereby preserving the intricate artworks, but also pays homage to the mission’s cultural roots.

Today, Mission San Xavier del Bac stands as a living embodiment of the region’s rich heritage, actively serving the native Tohono O’odham community for whom it was originally built. Unlike other Spanish missions in Arizona, San Xavier remains under the stewardship of the Franciscans, who have maintained an unbroken presence since their return in 1913.

Widely acclaimed as the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, the mission hosts approximately 200,000 visitors annually, who flock to marvel at its architectural and artistic wonders. While church services remain the heart of the mission, its doors are open daily to the public, offering a rare glimpse into the enduring legacy of the Spanish Colonial era and the resilience of the O’odham people who helped shape its storied history.

NRHP Reference #: 66000191