Friday, October 1, 2010


If I had to name one of the most stunning sights I’ve seen in the US I think the San Xavier Del Bac mission just south of Tucson would be tops on my list. I first learned of the existence of this place many years ago in an article from Sunset Magazine. The iconic photo above was what initially drew me to the mission; how could anybody not want to make the trip over to Tucson to see such a thing.

We in California are taught about missions from a young age. The study of Father Junipero Serra and his founding of the missions that are strung up and down California like a necklace begins about in the 4th grade. Almost all native Californians have, at one time or another, made a vow to see ALL the missions here, as they are part of our state’s history. But I have to tell you, none of our missions come anywhere close to being what San Xavier del Bac is.

It was in the mid 1960s that I saw it for the first time. It did not look quite as dramatic as the picture shows but it was close! With the sun in the west and with a cloudless blue sky, we could hardly believe what we were seeing.

But as dramatic as the exterior was, nothing prepared me for what I was going to see inside. There was hardly a square inch of bare space. On their present website there is a line that says, “The Baroque architecture style features playful dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbeling and overall sense of balance.” What I saw was a display of art, architecture, symbols, icons and religious artifacts that took my breath away.

(Photograph courtesy Philip Greenspun)

I usually am not all that crazy about “fussy” things. I’m quite comfy with sleek, modern lines and new age-y materials. But there is another part of me that really believes “the Baroquer, the better!” And oh, boy, is this wonderful mission satisfying!

But it wasn’t only “baroque” that charmed me. It was the human touch of the worshipers in that church. In the churches I have attended in my life, none have used candles as part of their religious practice. And I didn’t know much about Catholic rituals and practices, so I really had scant understanding of what I was seeing. But at San Xavier del Bac what I saw were hundreds of votive candles burning at the foot of many of the statues all scattered around the perimeter of the chapel itself, and in among these candles were photographs, funeral cards, toys, locks of hair, some as big as a pony-tail, and replicas of relics, among other things. The pictures mainly were of Indians, so I surmised that the church at that time was primarily peopled by Indians. These lighted candles seemed to me to be the human side of all the ethereal representations on the walls and the ceilings. Heaven meeting earth, I thought.

Visiting that church, as beautiful inside as it was outside, left a definite mark on my soul. Many years later when Jerry and I took a trip over to Arizona I wanted to share my old experience with him. We drove down to the church and discovered it closed at that time to the public. It was undergoing restoration and renovation, and though I was happy for that, I was sorely disappointed that I did not get to share it with Jerry – although I am not sure he was all that sorry. But he is always a good sport, no matter where I drag him.

This interesting picture is of the mission complex in 1902.

This picture was taken at the 200-year point in San Xavier's history. Now it has entered into its 300th year and is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. One of these days if our dear old Buick holds up I just might suggest to him that we take a weekend and drive over to Tucson one more time. We would, of course, phone first to make sure the public is now being allowed inside, as there is still some renovation going on.

Below you’ll find the URL for the San Xavier website and it will share with you the most interesting history of that church and the land on which it sits.

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