Tucson’s “Sistine Chapel” – A Flower in the Desert

Mission San Xavier del Bac, a majestic white landmark in the Arizona desert, awes visitors with its Baroque flourishes and continues to serve the Native American community

It’s known as the “White Dove of the Desert” and has been compared to the Sistine Chapel. First-time visitors in the Tucson area consider it a must-see.

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Mission San Xavier del Bac, a triumph of Spanish Colonial architecture noted for its domes and arches, is one of the most ornately decorated churches in the Southwest. The interior is a symphony of Baroque flourishes and a treasure trove of statuary, murals, and painted carvings of apostles and saints.

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A National Historic Landmark since 1963, Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded as a Catholic mission by Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. The current church was built under the direction of the Franciscans between 1783 and 1797. It is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona.

Serving the Tohono O’odham Native American community, San Xavier is an active congregation with daily Masses to which the public is invited to attend. Free 45-minute tours led by volunteer docents shed light on the church and the lavish artistic touches adorning its interior. The museum, also free, has a 20-minute video on San Xavier’s history and restoration.

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The Baroque architecture features dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors and marbling. The shell motif, a symbol of pilgrimage after the patron saint of Spain, Santiago or James the Greater, is found throughout the structure, including window treatments, the sanctuary and facade. The altar is especially elaborate.

Constructed of clay brick, stone and lime mortar, the white adobe structure is roofed with masonry vaults, making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings in the U.S.

Today’s Tohono O’odham (meaning “Desert People”) nation comprises more than 24,000 people who live in four separate districts in south-central Arizona.  The O’odham language is thriving and there are several dialects.


The O’odham traditionally were farmers who grew crops like sweet Indian corn, beans, squash, lentils and melons. At present few O’odham farm due to the lack of pumping of underground water. Most of them work for the Tohono O’odham Nation or federal government, while others are ranchers or work in Phoenix, Casa Grande and Tucson. They are well-known for their basket weaving, and baskets are for sale in the church’s gift shop.

O’odham children at the church’s K-8 school are taught by the Franciscan Sisters of Charity. Some of the students are from the Pascua Yaqui tribe.

Visitors to San Xavier can meet the Native American vendors at their fry bread stands set up outside the church. Whipping up the piping-hot discs of dough on their griddles, the ladies serve them with cheese, honey and cinnamon-sugar.

For a panoramic view of the gleaming white church surrounded by scruffy desert, take the rocky path up the hill just steps away from the church. It’s topped by a white cross.

Mission San Xavier is located nine miles south of downtown Tucson, just off Interstate 19. For information, visit sanxaveirmission.org.

Some 20 minutes to the south, Tumacacori National Historical Park encompasses three missions established by Father Kino in 1691. San Jose de Tumacacori, a beautiful ruin with exposed adobe bricks, is always accessible, while tours of the other two are offered from October through March.

By Randy Mink