Mission San Xavier
Roundup Editor Peter Aleshire took these photographs near Tucson on a recent visit
The strangely various congregation rose to their feet beneath the dual, double scalloped domes of one of the oldest, most vivid, most unusual churches in the West.
Brightly painted angels rioted across the 200-year-old walls, whimsical figures of animals drawn from Indian mythology lurked in the corners of the elaborately molded niches, and dozens of expertly carved statues gazed benignly down on the Sunday gathering through glass bead eyes. Twin lions sporting delighted, idiot grins, flanked the priest, symbols of the Spanish royal family that reigned two centuries ago when a pair of Franciscan friars induced Tohono O’Odham Indians to build this shimming vision of grace on the very edge of a dying empire.
As the Franciscan priest intoned the words of Our Father, a smiling, tastefully dressed woman with glowing, blue-tinted white hair reached across the pews to clasp the hand of the next worshiper in line. Standing 6’ 3” and weighing in at about 230 pounds, the Mexican fellow in the next seat carefully took her hand, his tank top T-shirt revealing the elaborate tattoos running up and down both arms. He smiled down on the society matron, his gentle grin as incongruous as the expression of docile delight on the faces of the lions up front.
Just another Sunday Mass at San Xavier del Bac, restored to a cheerful glory after a years-long restoration.
Backers raised millions to restore the venerable mission, with its astonishing blend of styles, faiths and cultures standing like some mirage amidst the creosote and sage brush just south of Tucson off Highway 19. The church showcases an unlikely architectural blend of Byzantine, Moorish and Mexican Baroque influences.
“It’s the Sistine Chapel of the United States,” commented Paul Schwartzbaum, head of technical services and conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Schwartzbaum, who oversaw the efforts of the international team of restorers. He noted that no other Spanish-period church equals the mission’s art and architecture.
Many of the restorers who cleaned centuries of grime from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel brought their cotton swabs, rice paper, scalpels, bottles of cleaning alcohol, soft bristle brushes, and high-tech techniques to this monument of faith, gleaming in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. They’ve trained Tohono O’Odham apprentices, lovingly softened and reglued paint peeled into the shape of potato chips, laboriously dissolved centuries of grime, wielded surgical tools to remove wasp nests, dabbed up layers of bat guano, and sent paint chips to high-tech laboratories for detailed analysis. In the process, they’ve transformed each part of the church they touched, so effectively that it’s almost impossible to believe they didn’t repaint the 192-year-old painting that covers the interior.
San Xavier del Bac sprang from the dream of Father Eusebio, the frenetic Jesuit missionary who in 1692 selected the site for the northernmost Sonoran Desert mission, a magnificent outrider for the Spanish Empire. A succession of churches rose and fell on the site until the present church was built between 1778 and 1797 by Fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz, who trained and deployed large teams of Tohono O’Odham workers, borrowed money from anyone they could cajole or coerce, and imported teams of expert artisans and architects from Spain and from Mexico. They laid down walls six-feet thick at the base, raised the soaring white dome of kiln-fired adobe and plastered it with lime, sand and cactus juice. Then they jammed the interior with statues, an army of angels, and intricate designs. The artists made a few, shallow bows to the Indian cultures who provided most of the labor and the worshippers, by tucking into their designs images of animals that seem mined from the rich vein of Indian mythology. Several walls are decorated with lovely, blue dots — apparently produced by workers who dipped their thumbs into paint. The designers also inserted a cat chasing a mouse on the imposing front facade. Legend holds that the world will end when the cat finally catches the mouse.
But the Spanish Empire was already in its death throes when the fathers completed their monument to God and Crown and Empire. The Franciscan order left Mexico after the Mexican Revolution in 1821, and the church fell into disuse and disrepair. It was abandoned entirely in 1831, and many of the native parishioners took the furnishings into their homes.
Father Joseph Machebeuf re-established the church in 1859, initiating the first in a series of efforts to restore San Xavier to its former brilliance. It’s been in continuous use ever since, although some of the earlier restoration efforts did more harm than good.
Lamentably, we now know almost nothing about the individuals who designed and built the church, nor the artists who decorated the interior with a tremendous explosion of color. But the artists and architects who have since examined their work have concluded they were masters of their assorted crafts. Although the Mexican Baroque style of the paintings and decorations seems to spring more from the traditions of folk art than of the Renaissance, the sophistication of design, the masterful combination of colors, the confidence of the brushwork, the expert layering of materials and colors, and the adroit use of washes and transparent colors betrays the expert training of the artists involved. But it’s actually the blend of styles and color that give the artwork in the interior its unique power. It boasts a Byzantium design, Moorish arabesques, and classical baroque motifs. But it’s dominated by the lively, joyful, Mexican Baroque influence that runs through Mexican art and culture.
Meanwhile, life goes on inside this remarkable meeting place of three cultures — Anglo, Mexican and Tohono O’Odham. Every day, dusty travelers walk across the sun-bathed expanse in front of the mission on the final steps of arduous pilgrimages. People pray earnestly in the pews, light candles for loved ones, and pin small prayers to the reclining carving of San Xavier, kept in a glass case in one nave. The milagros, family photos and scraps of paper pinned to the clothing of the figure seek intercession and forgiveness and acceptance. Every so often, one of the passing penitents furtively lifts the head of the figure, testing the legend that only the pure of heart can succeed. The procession of worshippers, mingling without a second thought with the gawking tourists keeps San Xavier from lapsing into the tomblike irrelevance of a museum or the dusty death of a mere landmark.