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Legacies of faith: nearly three centuries after his death, Father Kino's Southwest missions stand as testaments to his vision. (Travel: Recreation).

It's nearly rush hour, and traffic roars at breakneck speed along I-19 south of Tucson. But less than a mile west of the freeway, inside the cool, dark church of the San Xavier del Bac mission, time slows and speed is measured by the steady pace of pilgrims' shoes.

In the silence, steps echo beneath the high vault of the sanctuary, where a sculpture of God gazes down from his painted heaven. Supplicants walk past more than 50 statues of saints as they make their way to the altar guarded by a pair of carved lions. To the left, in the west transept, lies a reclining statue of St. Francis Xavier--the mission's namesake.

The San Xavier del Bac mission has been inspiring powerful demonstrations of faith for more than 300 years. The church is, perhaps, the greatest legacy of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a determined Jesuit padre who transformed this portion of the Southwest three centuries ago, establishing a chain of 25 missions that stretched from northern Mexico into southern Arizona.

November, as the Sonoran Desert cools, is a good month to explore at least a portion of Kino's world. You can easily visit two missions near Tucson--San Xavier and Tumacacori--in a day. Make it a long day if you can, and finish your journey next to the padre's bones, which are displayed in a shady plaza about an hour south of the border in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico. History buffs might want to take a guided tour of Kino's missions in Arizona and Mexico.

Taming a rugged land

Traveling this region from 1687 to 1711, handsome Italian-born Father Kino was the first "cowboy missionary," introducing cattle to the area and establishing large ranches as well as missions throughout. Cows may have been key to his success. Historian Bernard Fontana believes that it was partly the introduction of domestic cattle that helped convince the O'odham Native Americans to accept the padre and his missions.

Kino founded a mission in the O'odham village of Bac in 1692 and began building a church in 1700. But he did not live to see it completed beyond a foundation. Kino's Franciscan successors began construction of the present church in 1783; in 1797 work was completed on the building that now ranks as one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.

Like other Southwest mission churches, San Xavier blends elements of old and new worlds: the towers and dome reflect Spanish and Moorish influences, while the desert setting and some of the building materials link the church to the world of the O'odham. But the mission is no museum. Even today, residents of the surrounding Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation worship among the carved pillars and painted cherubs of the church.

On the day we visited, Tim Lewis, a Tohono O'odham who grew up in San Xavier's shadows, stood atop high scaffolding in the east chapel, repairing loose fragments of plaster. "[The mission] is something my ancestors helped to build," he said. "We continue to hold our celebrations and our feast days here."

Discovering colonial Spain

Although San Xavier is the finest example of Kino's legacy, other remnants of his work and his era are nearby. About half an hour south of San Xavier, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park offers a further glimpse into the Spanish colonial period. Just 3 miles south of Tubac, Kino's first mission in Arizona is now part of Tumacacori National Historical Park. It was established on the site of an O'odham village that the padre visited in 1691.

Unlike San Xavier, which is still an active church, the towering walls of San Jose de Tumacacori remain in a state of arrested decay beneath a burnt adobe bell tower. Begun around 1800, with more construction taking place in the 1820s, the mission church was finally abandoned, still unfinished, in 1848. "Tumacacori was preserved as a ruin to allow visitors to see how the Indians built the church here 200 years ago," says park historian Don Garate.

Weathered columns frame the arched doorway, leading the eye up past more columns to the facade. A cross perched there catches the sun and throws slender shadows across a grassy field and the gracefully preserved outer buildings. Inside, the beauty of the nave and altar survives in simple, rough adobe. Exit through the sacristy and stroll through the cemetery chapel. Beyond are humble graves topped by piles of stones and squat, sun-beaten crosses.

Kino died in the Mexican village of Magdalena just after completing a small chapel there in 1711. Although that chapel no longer exists, the magnificent Santa Maria Magdalena church now rises above Kino Memorial Plaza.

Brilliant sunlight passes through stained-glass windows in Santa Maria Magdalena's high dome, throwing beams of blue and red across the gilt-edged altar and scalloped nichos harboring finely detailed statues. The faithful still travel long distances to visit this church, where a sacred ritual involves lifting the head of a reclining carving of St. Francis Xavier. If the statue's feet also rise, it is seen as harbinger of a miracle.

But for many visitors, the real wonder of Magdalena lies across the plaza, where the remains of Father Kino--discovered within the original chapel ruins in 1966--now rest beneath a dome with glass windows for viewing. Over the years his bones have darkened to the rich caramels of their earthen tomb. Their only adornments are those befitting the cowboy missionary: a single cassock button laid upon the breastbone and a small crucifix on his shoulder bone.

RELATED ARTICLE: On the trail of Father Kino

For a regional travel planner, contact the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau: (520) 624-1817 or For information on travel and auto insurance requirements in Mexico, go to and click on "insurance."

The Pimeria Alta Missions & More (Southwestern Mission Research Center, Tucson, 1996; $12.95) offers an overview of the region and Kino's missions. Another good reference is at

The missions

Before visiting, please call and check church schedules to avoid disrupting services in progress.

San Xavier del Bac. From Tucson, take I-19 south 10 miles to exit 92 and follow the signs for mile. 7-5 daily; free. (520) 294-2624.

Santa Maria Magdalena. From the border at Nogales, take Mexico 15 south about 60 miles to the Kilometer 192 milepost in Sonora. Here the road forks; turn right onto the main street into town and look for the white church dome at Kino Memorial Plaza. Bring a lunch and picnic on the cheery, tree-lined plaza, or try the spicy steak and shrimp combo at El Tore, in front of the baseball stadium as you enter town. 011-52-632-3-22-03-75.

Tumacacori National Historical Park. On the first weekend in December, La Fiesta de Tumacacori celebrates regional culture with native crafts, foods, and a mariachi mass. (For more information, see "Time travel in Tubac" on page 36.) About 45 miles south of Tucson, take exit 29 from I-19. Turn left under the bridge, then drive north 1/4 mile on Frontage Rd. 8-5 daily; $3. (520) 398-2341 or

Guided tours in Mexico

The best way to visit the other Kino missions in Mexico (they range from weathered ruins to quaint chapels) is on one of the three-day, two-night tours offered in spring and fall by the nonprofit Southwestern Mission Research Center.

"We want to acquaint people with the region and its past, both European and indigenous," says historian and tour guide AI Gonzales. "These churches are show-and-tell objects through which we can relate the story."

Guided trips cost $295 and include lodging and most meals. Proceeds help preserve Kino missions in Mexico. Reserve well in advance, space is limited; (520) 628-1269 or
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Author:Vanderpool, Tim
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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