'Where the water appears"


A story of San Xavier Mission by Casey


The man named Estaban stopped and let his eyes trace the dry riverbed as it meandered across the valley along the mountains to his left.

It laded into a desertscape that was stopped in the northeast by a massive mountain range. Estaban trudged into history, and while Coronado may have may have visited the area soon after, it would be another century and a half before Europeans became intrigued by the valley circled by mountains.

Early European interest in the valley now known as Tucson found a focal point in the great Jesuit explorer and priest Father Kino. Kino who visited the area in the early 1690s wrote to king Phillip V of Spain about he area and named it San Xavier after the Patron Saint known as the "Apostle of the Indes."

He returned later in the decade to the area known as Bac or "place where the water appears" to establish the northernmost of the missions he founded. It was here the Santa Cruz River, which ran underground from the south, bubbled to the surface.

Kino brought livestock, grain and fruit trees into Bac and shared them with 800 people living in the vicinity. On the eve of the eighteenth century Father Kino and his neighbors began to build a church.

The church was built in a low-lying area near the riverbed Estaban had seen a century and a half before. Father Kino called this the "Santa Maria." Much broader, but shallower than presently perceived as the Santa Cruz, this riverbed would yield water with minimal digging during the dry season. It also had a tendency to flood during the rainy season, a tendency that precipitated frequent repair jobs.

The building of the first San Xavier del Bac ushered in a half century of relative tranquility that was shattered by the Pima Indian Revolt of 1751. Some Native Americans had been forced to work in Spanish mines under conditions that approached slavery. The resulting violence included the plundering of the mission..

As the strife of the Pima Revolt faded into history, a decision made across the ocean forced a change not to the church at Bac itself, but on its founders and keepers, the Jesuits in 1767, Charles III of Spain placed the Franciscan Order in charge of the missions, and a year later the little mission at Bac witnessed the changing of the religious guard. The Franciscans had barely settled in when marauding Apaches destroyed the mission buildings.

Construction of a new church was finally initiated in 1782. Continued flooding in the Santa Cruz lowlands led the Franciscans to choose a site on a hill about two miles south of the original church. Flooding was not the only concern that influenced the new San Xavier construction. The church's patio area was built as a defense against Apaches.

Completed in 1793, the present San Xavier del Bac is made of kiln-baked bricks that are covered with white lime plaster. The foundation of stones and mortar under the front towers is nearly six feet deep.

While Apaches remained a dormant threat to the safety of the new church, another war had significant impact on the mission. Spain, which claimed ownership of the area since before the time of Estaban, saw its ever weakening hold on the missions loyalty severed forever.

Mexico had won its independence, and in 1822 the new Mexican nation confiscated all of the missions in the domain. Priests where faced with hard times, and by 1831 San Xavier was without a priest. When the last of the priesthood left, Native Americans buried important items from the church for safekeeping.

In 1859, the United States acquired the mission as a part of the Gadsen purchase. Four years later, priests returned to San Xavier. They were pleasantly surprised by freshly unearthed artifacts that quickly brought a holy glow back to the church and its reconstituted, but proud congregation.

Although the earthquake of 1887 did minimal damage to the church, the years between the Mexican confiscation and the return of the priesthood witnessed a deterioration of the church. A restoration project was initiated and San Xavier del Bac once again became the "White Dove of the Desert."

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