San Xavier del Bac

historic black and white photo of ornate white church with tall bell towers and dome

"Father Kino, whose first visit to the O'odham community of Wa:k (Bac) was in 1692, began to build a church there in 1700. It apparently never got beyond its foundations, however, and in 1751 the Jesuit Father Visitor Jacobo Sedelmayr said of the Indian community, 'It is still very backward without a catechist, without obedience, and without any church other than a ramada and a wretched house. It is clear to see that this village has been visited very little.' San Xavier's first church, other than a ramada, was a flat-roofed, hall-shaped adobe building begun shortly after the arrival of Jesuit missionary Father Alonso Espinosa in 1756. It was serviceable at least by 1763, although given the fact that Espinosa failed to level the site and there were no stone foundations, there must have been structural problems from the outset. "The adobe church built by Father Espinosa was the one inherited by Father Francisco Garcés when he arrived at San Xavier in 1768 as its first Franciscan minister." (The Pimeria Alta: The Southwest Mission Research Center)

Bishop Antonio de los Reyes on 6 July 1772 wrote a report on the condition of the missions in the Upper and Lower Pimeria Alta. Following is his report on San Xavier del Bac as translated by Father Kieran McCarty:

The mission at Bac with one outlying mission station is located on a long, flat lowland. To the east lies a land, little known and occupied by the wandering and warlike Apache nation. To the west lie the settlements of an infinity of pagan Indians, meek and docile, who people the land all the way to the Gulf of California, a distance a little more than a hundred leagues. To the south at distances of eighteen and twenty leagues lie the two missions at Guevavi and Suamnca and the Presidios of Tubac and Terrenate. To the north lies the little-known land stretching some forty leagues to the Gila River. The village of San Xavier at Bac is situated on open ground with an abundance of water and good land where the Indians cultivate a few small fields of wheat, Indian corn, and other crops. The church is of medium capacity, adorned with two side chapels with paintings in gilded frames. In the sacristy are four chalices, two of which are unserviceable, a pyx, a censer, dish and cruets, a baptismal shell, all of silver, four sets of vestments of various colors, with other ornaments for the altar and divine services - all very poor. According to the census Book, which I have before me, there are forty-eight married couples, seven widowers, twelve widows, twenty-six orphans, the number of souls in all - two hundred seventy.

"Improvements in the architectural situation at San Xavier had to await the arrival in 1776 of Father Juan Bautista Beldarrain, a Basque friar. Building San Xavier was an expensive proposition, but Father Beldarrain was able to borrow $7,000 pesos - the equivalent of more than twenty years of a missionary's salary - from a businessman, Don Antonio Herreros. The friar's only collateral was wheat from crops not yet planted - almost as if he expected Don Antonio to join him in his vows of poverty. The good Padre was never able to repay the debt; he died at San Xavier in 1790, the new church still undecorated and otherwise unfinished. It was Beldarrain's successor at San Xavier, Father Juan Bautista Llorens, who oversaw its completion by 1797.

"Sometime early in the nineteenth century, probably in the 1820s, Father Espinosa's old church was torn down and its adobes, wooden columns, and ceiling beams were re-used to build a convento wing extending east from the east bell tower of the Franciscan structure. Today's church itself has interior and exterior walls of fired bricks set in lime mortar with an interior core filled with stone rubble over which lime mortar was poured periodically as the walls went up. The east bell tower, as well as interior decoration of a room apparently intended for large meetings of friars, was never finished. After the new temple at San Xavier was ready for use in 1797, Father Llorens directed his attention toward other building projects. One was the Tucson visita where he began either a renovation or a replacement for the Garcés chapel." (The Pimeria Alta, Southwest Mission Research Center)

Following is Bishop Reyes' report on San Cosme y Damian de Tucson, a visita of Bac, as translated by Father Kieran McCarty:

The outlying mission station of San José at Tucson is located six leagues to the north of San Xavier. There is no church or house for the Missionary. To take advantage of the fertility of the soil there are gathered together to form a village an increased number of Indians, both Christians and pagan. They have not been able to draw up a census book, but they judge that there are more than two hundred heads of families.

Last updated: May 14, 2020

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