A Mission for the Mission

Preservation of Desert Icon Needs Revenue Streams

By Christy Krueger

One of the greatest attributes of the Mission San Xavier del Bac is how much love it attracts. If that wasn’t the case, it’s not likely the 226-year-old National Historic Landmark would be standing in the same glory it is today.

The support system behind the mission’s fundraising and preservation efforts is the nonprofit organization, Patronato San Xavier, established in 1978 by a group of concerned Southern Arizona citizens. They had a right to be worried. The mission had been deteriorating for years and the only way to prevent further damage from age and the elements was intervention.

Before Patronato, conservation projects had been completed, but in some cases the “repair” work made the weakening building worse. In the 1950s, Portland cement-based plaster was used to replace the traditional lime based plasters. Cement retains moisture, and the process caused further decay.

The last section of the 18th-century church to be addressed is the iconic façade. “We want to remove (the cement) and replace with lime plaster made the traditional way,” said Miles Green, executive director of Patronato San Xavier. “It will be an important project, to start in about a year. We’re now in the research phase.” The preservation of the facade will include repairing the façade’s brick, stabilizing and consolidating the original plaster and refinishing with traditional lime plaster.

Other San Xavier projects in the past 20 years have included preservation of the West tower, (2003-2008), and the East tower, (2020-2022). Additionally, conservators are two-thirds finished with a second round of conservation of the interior artwork. This  work consists of stabilizing the interior plasters and reattaching paint fragments. Completed for the first time in the 1990s, it needs to be revisited at least every seven years.

Even the smallest repairs on a building the size and age of San Xavier are costly, and Patronato’s leaders are continuously searching for revenue streams to keep the iconic beauty alive for centuries to come.

The East tower work was supposed to have started immediately after the West tower was completed. “We were trying to raise money and hit a series of roadblocks,” Green noted. “We were depending on money from the State Heritage Fund. Due to the recession, that source was taken away.”

Green is grateful for regular support from local organizations such as the Silver & Turquoise Board of Hostesses, which has given roughly $825,000 to Patronato over the past 30 years. The 70-year-old organization hosts an annual ball at the Arizona Inn. 

“Every year, proceeds from the Silver & Turquoise Ball support the preservation of Tucson’s historical traditions and diverse cultural heritage,” said Lori Carroll, chair of the 71st annual Silver & Turquoise Ball, to be held May 6. “This year, as in many years past, our beneficiary will be Patronato, supporting their effort to preserve Mission San Xavier del Bac.  S & T Board of Hostesses is one of the primary contributors to the ongoing conservation and preservation of this gorgeous national landmark and local treasure.

“I am inspired by the community of exceptional women who have graciously dedicated their time, talents and efforts to keeping this tradition alive…” Carroll added.

Green also credits additional donors—the list of which is growing. “We are getting funding from almost every state,” he said. “Since 2011, our docent project has offered free tours. As part of these tours, the docents talk about the importance of the work to preserve San Xavier. People are inspired by our work and become supporters of that work.”

He named the National Fund for Sacred Places, State Heritage Fund and National Trust for Historic Preservation as important support sources over the years.

“One thing that’s a concern of mine, considering how iconic the mission is, and, how it functions as an economic driver for Southern Arizona– it’s the #2 tourist attraction here – is that almost all the local donations are from individuals, not businesses. We’re trying to develop business partners to get across the finish line of preservation projects in the next seven to eight years and need to raise a further $7 million.” 

Such partnerships, depending on the level of financial commitment will allow businesses to be listed on Patronato’s website and in its newsletter; tour guest passes; and sponsorships opportunities and invitations for events such as the beloved annual “Patronato’s Christmas at San Xavier. This holiday concert at the candle-lit mission, is considered by many to be the official start of the holiday season here.

The preservation work has uncovered some fascinating historic details. There are six original wood doors in the mission, and it was thought they were mesquite. Closer examination found that not to be the case. “Dendrochronology studies show they are pine and we’re fairly confident Mount Lemmon is where the pine was sourced,” Green said.

And of course, there is the long-standing legend of the Cat and the Mouse–cement creatures on elegant swirls on each side of the façade. “There is a legend,” Green said, “that if the cat catches the mouse, it’ll be the end of the world.” The two figures will be left alone during the work on the façade.

No sense in tempting fate.


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