The White Dove Of The Desert
December 30, 2008
Viewed from a distance, the graceful spires of the brilliant white San Xavier del Bac Mission stand ethereally and hauntingly beautiful against the true azure blue skies, in the San Xavier district of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The mission, known locally as “The White Dove of the Desert” is over 200 years old and still functions as a working church.
Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, laid the foundation for the first church at a site about two miles north of the present church site, which was built in the years 1783-1797. The mission was designed to meet the faith needs of some 800 friendly Native American villagers Father Kino had encountered living in the area’s desert rancherias, when this area was still part of Mexico. The architect is unknown. Perhaps the early villagers played an important role in the construction work. Father Kino named the village San Xavier del Bac and founded the mission in honor of San Francis Xavier.
In the early 1900’s the mission was in dire need of repairs and a clean up. In a five-year project, impressive interior artwork was cleaned using the same techniques used to clean the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Dazzling paintings and sculptures are plentiful and cover nearly every available space–on walls, ceiling and in niches. Thanks to the protective care of its villagers, the mission has miraculously stood the test of time and remains a work colorful elaborate artwork that thrills the many visitors who come from all corners to marvel at this lasting magnificent treasure.
The church artwork, designed to make “visuals” of significant religious teachings to inform the early illiterate villagers of rituals and entertain them with marvelous stories.
In the bas-relief of the mission’s outside facade, repeated on both sides of the entrance, we see a rat crawling along a scroll, being observed by an alert cat. Did this have any special significance? Perhaps it was simply a craftsman’s touch of humor. There are other mysteries that leave us wondering: Who were the craftsmen, the artists and sculptors who created such a magnificent masterpiece? Why was the second tower never completed? Were the craftsmen influenced by superstition? Perhaps an earthquake foretold a warning of impending disaster and they were afraid to complete the second tower.
Many art historians agree that the mission’s subtly combined Byzantine, Moorish and Mexico Renaissance architectural elements may be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.
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San Xavier del Bac Mission, located nine miles south of Tucson, is culturally and historically valued in the state of Arizona as much as it is vital to the Native American community of the Tohono Oldham Indians who live nearby. The fully functioning Catholic Church, primarly Tohono O’oldham is open to all. Catholic services are still held daily and visitors can also enjoy its museum artifacts or the gift shop offering southwest goods for sale.