One of the eight missions founded by the Spanish Padres between 1687 and 1720 in the Pimeria Alta, within the present limits of the State of Arizona, viz. Guevavi, San Xavier del Bac (of the water), Tumacacuri (San José, which has been reserved by Act of Congress as a national monument), Tubac (Santa Gertrudis), Sonoitag (San Miguel), Arivaca, Santa Ana, and Calabasas (San Cayetano). Of these only Tumacacuri and San Xavier del Bac are extant: the former, situated forty five miles south of Tucson, is in a ruinous condition, the latter, nine miles south of Tucson, in the fertile Santa Cruz valley and close to the Papago village, has remained in a remarkable state of preservation and is visited annually by a great number of pilgrims, tourists and students of art and history. Founded in 1699 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebius Kino (Kuhne), a native of the Austrian Tyrol who resigned the chair of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt to evangelize the aborigines of the New World, the Church of San Xavier del Bac was completed by the Spanish Franciscans at a later date, with the exception of one of the towers, which remained unfinished. It is built of stone and brick, with a mortar the process of which is now lost and which has retained to this day the consistency of cement. Its inside dimensions are 105 feet by 70 in the transept and 27 in the nave. It has the form of the Latin cross. Experts have been at variance regarding the style of architecture at San Xavier, some pronouncing it Moorish, others Byzantine, others again describing it as a mixture of both. It seems now established that it may not be called Moorish, as it has nothing in common with the Moorish architecture as exemplified in the Orient and Southern Spain, although it bears traces of the influence exercised by Moorish art over the Renaissance in Spain. The proper denomination should be the Spanish Mission style, viz. Spanish Renaissance as modified by local conditions in the Spanish colonies of the New World.
Directly in front of the church is an atrium, enclosed by a fence wall, where the Indians used to hold their meetings. The façade, profusely adorned with arabesques of varied colors and bearing the coat-of-arms of St. Francis, is flanked by two towers 80 feet high. From the top, made accessible by easy winding stairs cut in the thickness of the walls, a comprehensive view may be obtained over the verdant Santa Cruz valley, the distant city of Tucson and the circle of lofty, pinnacled mountains.
The interior is frescoed throughout, and contains a great number of artistic statues made of wood. The reredos of the main altar and of the side chapels are elaborately decorated in bas-relief with scroll work covered with gold leaf, and are supported by columns of unique designs. Above the centre of the transept a cupola rises to a height of 55 feet. Six minor domes divide the remaining space. Two figures of lions carved in wood guard the access to the sanctuary. The terraced roof is surrounded by a balustrade in masonry, each baluster tapering into a cement finial and supporting on either side a lion's head, reminiscent of the escutcheon of Castile and Leon. To the west of the church is an open cortile, the ancient burying ground, with fourteen pillars in the wall bearing niches for the Stations of the Cross worked in high-relief. At the west end of the cortile stands a domed chapel with a belfry, used formerly as a mortuary chapel, since dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows.
Adjacent to the church are gathered the mission buildings, surrounding a spacious patio lined with arcades and a monumental entrance consisting of seven arches. As it now stands, San Xavier del Bac is considered the most remarkable relic of the Spanish period north of Mexico; many important features which had gradually disappeared were replaced during the years 1906-10 by the Bishop of Tucson on his own responsibility, in an effort to restore the ancient and venerable pile to its pristine grandeur and to preserve it for future generations.
From 1827, the date of the expulsion of the Spanish missionaries, to 1866, when the Rev. J. B. Salpointe (later Archbishop of Santa Fé) came to Tucson, the mission of San Xavier del Bac was completely abandoned and left to the care of the Papago Indians, who saved it from destruction by the Apaches. Since 1868, when the Vicariate Apostolic of Arizona was erected, the bishops of Tucson have, by unremitting care and frequent outlay, warded off decay and ultimate ruin from the precious monument, constantly devoting at the same time especial and personal attention to the spiritual welfare of the Papago Indians gathered around the mission. For the past thirty-five years a school has been maintained by the clergy of the parish of Tucson for the benefit of the Papago children. It is located in the mission buildings and is conducted by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet.
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