Mission San Xavier del Bac

World Monuments Watch
Tucson, United States of America

2016 World Monuments Watch

In 1692, a Jesuit priest established the Mission San Xavier in the Native American village of Wa:k, or Bac in Spanish, on Tohono O’odham tribal land. Missions like this were an integral part of the Spanish plan for colonization and for bringing Christianity to Native Americans tribes. The European-style church that still stands today, known as the White Dove of the Desert thanks to its bright limewashed exterior, was constructed by Tohono O’odham nation members under the direction of the Franciscan order between 1783 and 1797. Built using local stone and fired brick, its appearance is marked with two octagonal towers, one of which has remained enigmatically unfinished. Today, the mission continues to operate as a parish and school serving the Tohono O’odham. Recognized as one of the first National Historic Landmarks by the National Park Service in 1963, the mission church houses original Spanish colonial murals and statues and attracts large numbers of visitors throughout the year.

In the mid-twentieth century, a well-intentioned restoration campaign covered the surface of the building with a layer of cement, leading to decades of structural deterioration and degradation from moisture trapped within the walls. These repairs have slowly been reversed starting in 1988, thanks to the establishment of the Patronato San Xavier in 1978, an organization dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of the mission. In 2009, the restoration of the church’s west tower was completed. The failing concrete was replaced with a mixture of lime, local sand, and an extract from prickly pear cactus, as specified by tradition. A fundraising campaign for the restoration of the east tower of the church is now underway. The same restoration craftsmen—multiple generations of a Tohono O’odham family—responsible for the work on the west tower will be involved in the next phase of work. If accepted by voters, a Pima County bond would provide matching funds for preservation efforts at Mission San Xavier del Bac over a period of ten years. The 2016 World Monuments Watch advocates for continued preservation efforts at Mission San Xavier del Bac and supports the attempts to preserve the architectural, artistic, and cultural significance of this site, which is an important parish church for the many Native Americans who live in the area.

Since the Watch

In April 2016 the exterior of the church, its courtyard walls, the nearby cemetery, and the adjacent sidewalk were spray-painted in an act of vandalism. The graffiti was removed immediately by a local volunteer and Patronato, San Xavier’s fundraising group. In May 2016 conservators completed the restoration of the mission’s Virgin Mary statue, which had been taken down the previous January bearing cracks, inappropriate paint, and the nests of wasps and mice.

Last updated: November 2016.

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