An aerial shot of San Xavier.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2021

Inside the Latest Conservation Work at Arizona's Spectacular San Xavier del Bac

For more than 200 years, visitors to what is now Southern Arizona have come upon a sight they could not quite believe: a gleaming cathedral of white that seems to float above the tan landscape like a mirage. Since its two towers first rose into the cloudless desert skies in the 1790s, San Xavier del Bac Mission church has been moving visitors to record the moment they saw it in wonder.

In 1793, Franciscan Friar Francisco Antonio Barbastro visited the Native community of Wa:k (incorrectly transcribed by the Spanish as “Bac”), which he described as “the northernmost village of the Christian world” and wrote, “The church which they are building … rivals the most beautiful churches in México. In this country it should rightly be termed ‘astounding.’”

Half a century later, United States Army Lieutenant Cave Johnson Couts, in the first known Anglo-American description, noted the sense of dislocation San Xavier del Bac can still inspire. “Its domes and spires which projected above the thick mesquite growth as we approached was of itself sufficient to guarantee a City with many churches and other large and fine buildings,” Couts wrote. “But when we came up, found it standing solitary and alone… .”

The church still rises out of the desert with the same ethereal majesty. But its solitary appearance is a trick of perspective. It has never been alone. Since the beginning, San Xavier del Bac has been part of a community of Native people now known as the Tohono O’odham. Still, the feeling of dislocation Couts recorded, of the mission belonging to another world than the one in which it had been placed, captures another truth: the long, often troubled history of Western settlement and Christian conversion in the Southwest.

How San Xavier del Bac and the people who love it, both Native and of European descent, have negotiated that history speaks to the power of preservation to create a common purpose. The mission survives today because the O’odham, the Roman Catholic Church, and the people of nearby Tucson have all, over the centuries, stepped up to make sure the building known as “The White Dove of the Desert” continues to beguile visitors. It’s an ongoing story that continues with the latest conservation work at San Xavier, which is being funded in part by a $250,000 capital grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, a cooperative program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places.

A plaza at San Xavier del Bac.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

The church’s asymmetry is part of its mystique; the east tower has never had a dome and cupola to match the west tower. The 18th-century building, designed by Spaniard Igancio Gaona (spellings of his name vary), has long been known as “The White Dove of the Desert.”

On a rare cloudy day this spring I climbed a narrow, vertiginous staircase inside the walls of the west tower at San Xavier del Bac, emerging onto the roof. While Bob Vint, the architect who has worked on the mission since 1989 and is currently in charge of restoring the east tower, discussed the work with construction managers nearby, I took in the view.

An arched expanse of startling white, defined by parapets with an elaborate set of finials marching toward the cross-topped dome on the north end of the building, greeted me. It all felt unexpectedly Middle Eastern, faintly Moroccan. In the 20 years I’ve lived in Tucson, I’ve visited the mission many times, but this was my first chance to climb up to the church’s bell tower and the roof. The impact was a more extreme version of my earlier impression of the place: awe-inspiring but disorienting.

San Xavier del Bac is beautiful, ornate, unbalanced, strange, and captivating. The towers are asymmetrical, and their stark, whitewashed walls contrast sharply with the terra-cotta central facade. The architectural style is Mexican Baroque with Mudéjar (Spanish Islamic–style) touches, the elaborate interior High Baroque with a density of decoration—statuary, carvings, patterned motifs, paintings—seemingly covering every inch. Miles Green is the executive director of Patronato San Xavier, the nonprofit created to support the mission. He says the interior contains (in one form or another) at least 183 different angels alone.

It adds up to a building you can’t quite get a handle on, one that seems to shift slightly in your perceptions the longer you consider it. The same is true of the mission’s history, as layered and complex as its form. It was founded in 1692 by Eusebio Francisco Kino, a legendary Jesuit figure who founded two dozen missions across Northern Mexico and the American Southwest.

Kino seems, by the measure of his times, to have been a relatively enlightened soul. He opposed the enslavement of Native people by the Spanish in the silver mines of the New World, and he adopted a method of conversion that depended more on enticement than coercion. He arrived bearing livestock and seed and was tolerant of Native practices. “Kino was able to integrate the Christian story into a lot of the original stories of the Native people,” says Green. “It seems he didn’t have a need for the people to adopt Catholicism exclusively.”

The exterior of San Xavier del Bac.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

The exterior conservation work happening on the east tower entails removing layers of cement that were added in the mid-20th century but are now known to cause damage to the brick beneath it.

In contrast to other Spanish missionaries, notably Junípero Serra in California, whose treatment of Native peoples led demonstrators to tear down his statues during last summer’s racial protests, Kino is by and large remembered fondly. Memorials to him abound in the Southwest, and his gravesite in the central plaza of the small city of Magdalena de Kino, Mexico, is a shrine.

But the peripatetic Kino was only in Bac off and on over the course of a decade, and the relatively benign beginnings of the mission obscure a tumultuous early period that did not escape the harsh realities of Spanish encroachment into Native lands. Bernard L. Fontana’s history of the mission, San Xavier del Bac: Portrait of a Desert Church, which served as a major resource for this story, notes a rising tide of unrest among the O’odham as diseases brought by the Europeans ravaged the Natives and the expanding Spanish presence grew more oppressive.

In 1734, a group of O’odham broke into the priest’s house at Bac and ransacked it, damaging or destroying vestments, altar cloths, and other symbols of Christianity. In 1751, the Pima Uprising, a revolt across the region, caused the Jesuits at San Xavier to flee until the Spanish regained control. The uprising had been spurred in part by callous treatment from many of the area’s missionaries, whose labor requirements of the O’odham (believed to have been paid in meals and, in some cases, wages) disrupted the community’s centuries-old agricultural practices. The missionaries also tried to prohibit traditional ceremonies. In specific incidents, Jesuit priests in nearby missions belittled and/or physically mistreated O’odham leaders, helping to spark a violent response that spread quickly.

Bob Vint.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

Bob Vint of Vint & Associates Architects has guided restoration work at San Xavier del Bac since 1989.

Miles Green.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

Miles Green leads Patronato San Xavier, the nonprofit that oversees the preservation and maintenance of the mission.

Five years after the Pima Uprising, Friar Alonso Espinosa’s attempt to force the O’odham at San Xavier to abandon their traditional practices—including age-old religious rituals, dances, and festivals—led to another sacking of the friar’s residence. In one of those incongruous moments history sometimes provides, the leader of the military expedition sent to punish the O’odham paused on his way back to lay the cornerstone for an early church at San Xavier, a flat-roofed, unadorned, mud adobe structure that took five years to complete under Espinosa’s direction—with the O’odham, of course, doing most of the work.

The church, finished around 1761, served the small Christian community gathered around the mission until work began on something much grander. By then, the Jesuits were gone, recalled by the Spanish crown for political reasons, and replaced by Franciscans.

A shrine at San Xavier del Bac.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

The elaborately carved and painted Retablo Mayor, or main altar, in the sanctuary of San Xavier. The figure in white is the church’s namesake, St. Francis Xavier.

The Franciscan order calls its priests to live a simple life, with a detachment from material possessions. Yet starting around 1783, and over the next 24 years, Franciscan friars would oversee the raising and decorating of a church that was anything but simple, that celebrated their faith in ornate, material splendor. They began during a period of active mission building in northern New Spain, and it was Spanish builders who brought their construction techniques and architectural ideals to San Xavier. “If we think of architecture as a built expression of a given culture or set of beliefs, then the mission is a perfect manifestation of Spanish Catholicism in the late 18th century,” notes Vint.

But again, it was the O’odham who did most of the actual construction. The church the Spanish and the O’odham created together was built to last. The walls of the towers are 6 feet thick, the walls of the main structure 3 feet deep, according to Vint. They have proved remarkably durable over the centuries, damaged but standing after an earthquake in 1887 that felled other buildings in the region.

Still, the Sonoran Desert—where summer highs can top 112 degrees, winter nights dip below freezing, annual monsoons bring torrential downpours, and gale-force winds raise corrosive sandstorms—is an environment that ravages buildings. From the beginning, San Xavier’s scale exceeded the financial resources of Catholic authorities to maintain or even finish it. The eastern tower lacks the dome and cupola of the western tower simply because the Franciscan friars ran out of money.

By the mid-1800s, the mission largely had been abandoned by the church, with circuit-riding priests visiting only rarely. Lieutenant Couts found it empty but kept by the O’odham “with incredible care.” In 1854, the United States acquired what is now Southern Arizona from Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase, leading the Mexican priests to formally withdraw. Four years later, a visitor traveling west found the mission’s abandonment complete. “The birds are its only occupants and they sing praises from morning until night,” traveler Phocian R. Way wrote in his diary in 1858. “They build their nests on the heads of the saints and warble their notes of joy while perched on their fingers.”

Others who came upon the mission at this time were less poetic, noting the roof leaked and plaster was falling in chunks. They predicted that within a few years the church would fall into total ruin.

A shrine at San Xavier del Bac.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

The east transept contains a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, which is dressed in different costumes depending on the season or feast day.

The walls of San Xavier are built of burnt adobe bricks made of local clay and fired in kilns where the church’s rear courtyard now sits. The bricks form a shell filled with basalt rock hauled down from hills still visible in the distance. “It’s really a stone building with a brick veneer,” says Vint.

We talked as workers raised scaffolding up the sides of the 64-foot-tall east tower. The current conservation effort is focused on undoing earlier tower repairs that used cement plaster for resurfacing. This was once a common practice, but preservationists now know that cement prevents burnt adobe brick from breathing, trapping moisture and leading to its eventual deterioration. The project, which will cost about $1 million, is expected to be finished next spring. “Essentially, it’s removal of the concrete to the underlying burnt adobe, scraping off the concrete,” Vint explains. “It’s a matter of removing incompatible materials, adding compatible materials, and then adding a lime plaster.”

Conservation is going on simultaneously inside, where I clambered up a different scaffold to join the husband-and-wife conservator team of Tim Lewis and Matilde Rubio. Their story brings San Xavier’s long history around in a kind of circle. In 1992, master conservators from Rome were brought in to work on San Xavier. While there, they trained four members of the Tohono O’odham Nation in their discipline. One was Lewis, who eventually spent time in Europe, further mastering his craft on other conservation projects. In Salzburg, Austria, he met fellow conservator Rubio, who is of Spanish descent. They married and for more than 20 years have labored to conserve a mission founded by the Spanish and largely built by the O’odham. “Two hundred years later, we came back together from Europe to work on it,” Lewis says.

That painstaking work includes cleaning statues and paintings by carefully removing decades of soot and grime. “Imagine the impact of 150 years of wax candles,” says Green. Rubio and Lewis also make delicate repairs when necessary. The effort continues to uncover surprises. Rubio shows me freshly revealed details of a wall painting of the Virgin Mary—her halo, a candle—that surfaced as they brought the original painting back to life.

Matilde Rubio and Tim Lewis.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

Conservator couple Matilde Rubio and Tim Lewis (who hails from San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation) have been working at the site for more than two decades.

Lewis points out the varying sophistication of the artwork, which indicates that both accomplished artisans and apprentices put their brushes to San Xavier—another possible example of the two cultures working together. To pass on their conservation skills locally, Lewis and Rubio have taken on their own apprentice, Susie Moreno, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation from San Xavier District who is studying sustainable building and heritage conservation at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

San Xavier continues to be integral to the O’odham people, particularly the Catholic faithful, with regular services, a mission school, and annual festivals and celebrations. “In general, most of the people from San Xavier, they’ve all been baptized here,” says Lewis, “had their weddings here, had their funerals here.”

The mission, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, also has long served as a source of regional pride. “Ever since Tucson’s Anglo business community began promoting it, the romance of the mission has been part of our psyche,” says Vint. “Very early brochures trying to convince people to come to Tucson often featured San Xavier. I was in Cub Scouts, and our Cub Scout troop built a scale model of the San Xavier mission out of little adobe bricks [we made using ice-cube trays]. We exhibited it at the Pima County Fair.”

Matilde Rubio and Miles Green.

photo by: Mark Lipczynski

Green and Rubio examine a statue of St. Dominic that had detached from its base.

The Catholic diocese made badly needed repairs to the dome and other parts of the structure early in the 1900s under Bishop Henry Granjon, whose dedication to the mission reportedly led him to pick up a trowel when needed and to reach into his own pocket when money ran dry. But other financial needs have pressed upon the church, and the cost of conservation and maintenance had clearly become too much by the 1970s, when a group of leading Tucson citizens formed Patronato San Xavier to save what they recognized as both a local and national treasure.

Since 1978, the Patronato has taken on the responsibility for preservation, relieving the parish and the Franciscan order of the burden. “Before Patronato stepped in, the building truly was at risk,” says Green. Roughly $14 million has been spent over the past 32 years for interior and exterior restoration and conservation, Vint says. Money has come from local supporters, the Getty Foundation, and the National Fund for Sacred Places, as well as a federal economic development grant.

The preservation is ongoing. Vint has worked on San Xavier for 32 years. “Almost half my life has been dedicated to this,” he notes, sounding slightly surprised. But it has clearly been a labor of love. “To this day, San Xavier is the most stunning work of architecture in Southern Arizona, and it was built 230 years ago.”

Even after all his years toiling to conserve the church, Tim Lewis still finds himself impressed by what his ancestors and those of European descent managed to accomplish and how it has endured. “I think those people really did know what they were doing when they built it,” he says.

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Reed Karaim, who grew up in North Dakota, is a freelance writer now living in Tucson, Ariz. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Architect, and U.S. News and World Report, among others.

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