Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Along the Mission Trail

Sooner or later I knew my interest in the Spanish missions would take me across the California border into Arizona.  It is in Tucson where one of the most beautiful of these churches still exists.  Mission San Xavier del Bac has had an active parish since its founding in 1692--a rare thing indeed.

The Jesuit priest, Fr. Eusebio Kino, selected this site near the Santa Cruz River for the Spanish government's most northern outpost,  Although he is highly esteemed in Arizona, his story really begins in California.  He started his missionary career in Baja at the San Bruno Mission, just north of Loreto.

Not only was he a priest, but he was also an astronomer, a cartographer and a mathematician.  He is credited for drawing the first accurate map of Baja and the Gulf of California and debunking the century old myth that California was an island.

 He left Baja in 1685 because of an intense drought.  He then went back to Mexico City and received a new assignment:  Accompany Lieutenant Juan Manje into the "New Spain", convert the natives and make them loyal vassals of the King.  He set up missions on the way north, mostly in Sonora, Mexico.  By the time he died in 1711, he had founded twenty-four in all.

To put things in perspective, Farther Junipero Serra founded the first mission in Alta California in 1769, almost eighty years later than San Xavier del Bac.   By then, the Jesuits had all been expelled from the New World and the Franciscans were now given the task of running the missions.  It is the Franciscan Order who continues to operate the Tuscon mission to this day.

It is also the Franciscans who built the current church in 1778.  Its architecture is magnificent.  It is a cruciform shape with five domes on high arches.  The walls are constructed of burnt brick on stone foundations, making it incredibly sturdy.  Covered with white plaster and an ornamental facade, its two towers rise above the desert in colossal splendor.  It can be seen miles away.

We watched a documentary on the recent restoration of the interior.  Hundreds of years of graffiti had to be erased and all the murals repainted.  It is an elaborate, stunningly beautiful environment--more reminiscent of the churches in Europe than the bare altars of the missions I'm familiar with back home. 

  Allow 2-3 hours for your visit.  That will give you enough time to admire all the artwork, sit through the documentary and walk through the museum and the chapel.  We ended our tour by walking up the hill to the shrine.  From there, you can see the whole structure of the church and the surrounding Sonoran Desert. 

This visit has inspired me to continue traveling the Mission Trail into New Mexico and Texas. The story of the Spanish policy to use the mission infrastructure to pave the way for colonization is a fascinating one.   With the canonization of Fr. Junipero Serra on the horizon, the debate is raging.  Was this policy a success or a failure?  Whatever your opinion, it is a part of our American History and worthy of exploration.

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