Travel to Tucson for Spanish Mission and Fry Bread

Travel Photo Thursday: Mission San Xavier del Bac

San Xavier from food ramada
San Xavier from food ramada

Mission San Xavier del Bac (Pronounced San Ha-veer) was built in 1797 on a site first visited by Father Kino, the Spanish missionary, in the 1600s. It is the only mission church in Arizona that is still a parish church, serving the Tohono O’Odham, on whose lands it is located.  The picture above peeks through a ramada built as a food booth on the plaza facing the mission.  The roof is made of ocotillo  cactus branches, and the form mimics the summer homes used by the Tohono O’odham in times gone by.

San Xavier del Bac un-restored window
Mission San Xavier del Bac un-restored window
San Xavier del Bac restored window
Mission San Xavier del Bac restored window

The Mission had fallen upon hard times until a fund raising campaign paid for restoration work that took place over many years. The work is close to completed, but on the front side of the church, one tower has been restored while the other stands as it was–weathered from the desert sun and wind. The plaster work was restored by Tohono O’odham craftsmen, who understood the materials used by their forefathers in building the church. The Spanish missionaries directed the original work, but it was carried out by the indigenous people. While the architecture and ornamentation does not rival a Renaissance cathedral in Italy or France, the accomplishment of people in a desert land who had never done this kind of work before–never held a paint brush, or seen religious objects–makes the end product seem spectacular.

San Xavier del Bac anglel in calico
San Xavier del Bac angel in calico

The art work on the inside melds typical religious symbols with materials and plants familiar to the native artists.  When it came time to restore the inside paintings, blackened by more than two centuries of candle smoke, art restorers from around the world, particularly from Italy, came to the rescue.  I particularly love this angel who seems to be wearing a cut-off version of an 18th-century woman’s dress. What daring bare legs!

San Xavier del Bac Mission Door Handle
San Xavier del Bac Mission Door Handle


Some items in the church, like statues of saints and some tile work, were imported on the long Camino Real that led from  Spain through Mexico to Pimeria Alta (the name for northern New Spain). I suspect this door handle on the front door may have been imported. On the other hand, it does have the right shaped head for a rattlesnake, native of the surrounding Sonoran desert.

And how interesting to have a symbol of sin the first thing you touch as you enter the church.  Perhaps he’s looking for Eve?

You can learn more about the details of the Mission and the preservation at the site of the fundraising organization, Patronato.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac
San Xavier del Bac food booth menu
San Xavier del Bac food booth menu
San Xavier del Bac, honey on the fry bread
San Xavier del Bac, honey on the fry bread

After you’ve toured the mission, head back to the ramada food stalls for some chili or fry bread.

Perhaps Father Kino had something else in mind than Fry Bread and Indian Tacos for sale in front of his mission. But after all, he’s the one who introduced both wheat and beef to the native people here.

More about Southern Arizona and a couple more pictures of the mission here.

This has been my weekly contribution to Photo Travel Thursday, a round-up of travel writers and photographers spurred on by Nancie at Budget Traveler’s Sandbox. Click on over to her site and you can see pictures on many themes from all around the world.

These photos are all my property, so please respect my copyright. Thank you.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

15 thoughts on “Travel to Tucson for Spanish Mission and Fry Bread

  1. I stayed in Tucson for a few nights a couple of years ago and remember how beautiful the mission looked with a setting sun in the distance. What a labor of love to restore such a building. But waht a difference too.

  2. Fascinating- you learn something every day. The details and the workmanship are interesting too. I love that one tower has not been restored..yet!

  3. Beautiful restoration. I’ve never been to any of the missions, but would love to visit sometime. The snake handle is definitely brings up the question…WHY?

    1. I would like to know more about that snake handle,too, and I guess I’ll have to go to the library, because I couldn’t find it on the Internet. The authoritative book about the mission published two years ago costs $75. It is gorgeous and worth every penny–if I only had the pennies. It probably has an answer. If not, I’ll just have to call the author, Bernard Fontina, who has spent decades studying San Xavier.

  4. I have heard of this mission but haven’t visited yet. I love the brown facade of this church. The Spaniards knew how to build those lovely missions. That is so interesting about the snake handle and great observation.

  5. I’ve heard lots about missions in California (and seen a few of them), but never in Arizona, so very interesting article this. But Tohono O’Odham, what is that? A Native American tribe, perhaps? If so, that’s quite an unusual name, isn’t it?

    1. Thanks for asking Sophie. The Spanish built a string of missions in Arizona, but since they were built of adobe, most melted away in the sun and wind and rain. Tohono O’odham in their language means “Desert People”. When the Spaniards came, they ask the indigenous people what their name was, but they didn’t understand so they said a word that sounded like Pima to the Spaniards. The word actually meant “I don’t know”. Recently American Indian people have been reclaiming their native names.

  6. I noticed your mention and photo of this on FB and am so glad you provided a larger version here. This is a great post. I am putting this one in my ‘next time’ file.

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