Jewel in the Desert

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman

Surely it is the light that first attracts us to this great house of worship.

Light paints a magical scene at Mission San Xavier del Bac, the queen of all the Pimería Alta churches and the finest example of Spanish Mission architecture in the United States. Tourists and Tucsonans alike are inspired by the iconic structure which endures as both a work of art and as a sacred space.

Take a look again. Desert skies that are forever in motion whisper endlessly to the centuries-old Mission San Xavier del Bac, where “Bac” originates from the O’odham word W:ak, the name of the native village, which means “where water appears.” Winds, sun, time and political upheaval have carved erosion here. This beloved white church glimmers with timeless beauty but could well have met its match in our relentless desert – were it not for the community that cherishes this jewel and passionately helps to preserve it.

“The mission is a national treasure at our doorstep,” said Chuck Albanese, president of Patronato San Xavier, a nonprofit group of community leaders formed in 1978 for the purpose of restoring and preserving the mission with the most minimal intervention. “It’s clear that this place of great meaning needs our vigilance.”

White Dove Endures
Known as the serene “White Dove of the Desert,” the mission sits on 14 acres and appears to spring from the earth, welcoming all with wings outstretched as it’s approached from the city that grew up around it. Centuries of history and intense devotion illuminate this national historic landmark and living church.

Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino rode into the valley in 1692, founding the mission soon after this. The padre gave the parish the name of his patron Saint Francisco Xavier, Roman Catholic apostle to the Indies. Kino laid the foundation for his intended church in a location that remains a mystery. His parish church was later built at the current site, which was deemed suitable perhaps because of its proximity to the village and to the “river of the holy cross,” the Santa Cruz.

Kino died at another of his missions in Magdalena, Son. in 1711, never seeing his dream of the Bac church realized. Instead, construction finally began in 1756, led by Jesuit Alonzo Espinosa. Through the labor of native converts, the awe-inspiring Bac mission envisioned by Kino was mostly completed by 1797, under the supervision of another missionary order, the Franciscans, who to this day still actively serve the San Xavier Roman Catholic parish.

Facing south, the mission is an intricate complex constructed in the form of the Latin cross, with its west tower soaring 83 feet into the immense sky. The shorter east belfry tower was never completed for lack of funds. The elegant, unusual appearance of these towers – combined with the unique masonry-vaulted roof, ornate façade and heavily frescoed interior – show a mix of New Spain and Native American craftsmanship unrivaled in the Southwest.

Proactive Patronatos
This shrine of both pilgrimage and tourism became a National Historic Landmark in 1963, even as years of earthquake, lightning strikes, vandalism and well-intentioned conservation efforts were causing serious damage.

Earlier restorations by the Diocese of Tucson tried to stave decay with new coats of white plaster – but layers of cement stucco and concrete blocks only seemed to cause fissures and lock in moisture, which penetrated the walls, eating away at the structure and its artworks.

Realizing that the need to fix the structural roof problems was urgent, a handful of Patronato Tucsonans rallied the community to obtain funds and begin crisis conservation. Bernard Fontana, an ethnologist with the Arizona State Museum who lived nearby the mission, was a Patronato leader in this process.

Art conservator and art historian Gloria Fraser Giffords made initial studies to document conditions and outline recommendations. Emergency restoration to fix water infiltration in the west tower began in 1989, supervised by Patronato member and architect Robert Vint.

Morales Restoration and Builders, a local family of contractors that has worked on the San Xavier mission for five generations, joined the team – and employed a traditional technique using layers of lime and sand plaster bound by the juice extracted from prickly pear cactus to stabilize the structure.

Then, conservators from New York, Italy, Spain, London and Turkey were contracted to oversee the cleaning and repair of the church’s interior paintings and sculptures. To move the project forward, the Tucson office of Snell & Wilmer law firm stepped in to guarantee the salaries for the curatorial team. Snell & Wilmer continues to provide financial, in-kind and volunteer leadership assistance.

The major interior conservation effort, begun in 1992, also employed local Tohono O’odham conservator apprentices – one of whom, with his wife, still monitors the repairs. The west tower restoration was completed in 2009, protecting the integrity of most of the church structure.

This is a multi-million dollar, painstaking restoration project, working inch-by-inch to repair and refinish the historic mission, said Vern Lamplot, executive director of the Patronato. “The Patronato has raised more than $10 million to prevent further deterioration, but there are still problems to address,” he said.

Patronato president Albanese said, “Our respect for the integrity of the restoration has led us to blend traditional techniques with the highest standards of modern conservation.” The architect, artist and former University of Arizona dean sees this meticulous process as a happy marriage of highest tech and purest tradition in an unceasing, necessary effort.

Restoring a Solitary Gem
The restoration revealed a dazzling array of elaborately decorated wall paintings, statues and Mexican folk baroque details. There are contemporary Native American designs in the altar cloths. Today the restored altars and flawless finish of the west tower, however, contrast sharply with the crumbling plaster so dramatically visible on the east tower.

“We’ve completed one chapter,” Albanese said, “but the mission is a living, breathing church that does not stand still.” He pointed to the low-fired Mexican brickwork and adobe on the east tower, which is slowly dissolving. “Every day that the mid-day sun beats against its surface, more of the church erodes. Substantially more work remains.”

To fund improvements for the deteriorating east tower and to continue the interior restoration, the Patronato is making inquiries to raise funds in support of the remaining east tower restoration.

“This is a $3 million capital project over three years,” said Barbara Peck, Patronato member and co-chair of an upcoming campaign launch for the mission’s continued restoration. “We are confident we’ll be able to do the work quickly, not closing the church. Approvals are in place. We just need the funding.”

Lured by the Light
Peck, a 30-year public relations professional, was immediately drawn to the mission when she moved to Tucson. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Peck is named for Saint Barbara, whose statue appears on the San Xavier façade, near the massive mesquite doors. “Like everyone, I’ve found my personal connection at San Xavier,” she said. “It’s a very beautiful and holy place where everyone finds meaning.”

“The restoration of San Xavier is a work in progress, and that’s why the restoration must continue,” said Jeff Willis, a Snell & Wilmer partner and member of the Patronato. Willis knows about legacy – he stepped in as Snell & Wilmer’s representative when partner Claque Van Slyke, who practiced law in Tucson for 50 years, passed away.

“Claque would say the mission’s restoration requires our attention every day,” Willis recalled. “The historical, spiritual and cultural significance is incomparable, and we need to ensure the mission exists for the next generation of parishioners, our community and the public.”

San Xavier’s recovery effort is an ongoing passion for many. Long-time individual supporters include Patronato members Pat and Chuck Pettis, Laura and Arch Brown, folklorist Jim Griffith and 92-year-old Tucsonan Ann Fallon.

Corporate sponsors include The Click Group and Tucson Electric Power. Foundation support includes Southwestern Foundation, the Green and Stocker foundations, the Silver & Turquoise Ball (see sidebar p. 56) and the Robert B. Hansen and O’Reilly family foundations. The support has allowed restoration work on the parish’s original arcade design to continue. Albanese indicated that east tower restoration could begin this fall if funding progresses.

“If you think of how many 1770s structures are still standing, there’s no doubt about how priceless this incredible sample of mission architecture is to our community and our country,” said Albanese, who often visits the mission to paint the rich values inspired by the changing light.

On one day of painting, the wind stirs, pushing sand spirals up against the mission. Albanese reaches to steady his easel. Beyond him, the sacred site appears in the sandy sunlight more luminous than ever, seeming to shout out centuries of history that are written from yesterday, today, and – if the Patronato has its way – tomorrow.

Silver & Turquoise
Ball Benefits Mission
San Xavier del Bac

From 1949 to 1996, the Tucson Festival Society helped preserve the region’s heritage through community events, including a springtime mission celebration in honor of St. Francis Xavier.

Although the society is no more, the Silver & Turquoise Ball, led by a group of prominent women leaders and board of hostesses, assumed the tradition of dancing under the stars on a sparkling spring evening on behalf of Tucson’s arts and culture.

The first Silver & Turquoise Ball was held in 1950. One hostess was Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first female congresswoman and founder of the Arizona Inn. When rains threatened Greenway’s pot luck gathering, the event was moved to the Arizona Inn – where it remained to become another important Tucson tradition that supports the mission.

In 1993 the Silver and Turquoise Board of Hostesses formed its own nonprofit organization, dedicating all proceeds to the ongoing restoration of Mission San Xavier del Bac.

This year’s Ball Chair Jackie Ludwig and her 50-member board of hostesses plan an extraordinary evening to reflect the traditional elegance at the heart of Tucson’s magic.


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