In between our visit to Sabino Canyon and the Kitt Peak Observatory, we stopped at the San Xavier Mission. The mission is located somewhere south of Tucson, in the middle of, and this may surprise you, desert. All the descriptions of the Mission describe the “lofty white towers,” which they are, but as half the church was hidden behind scaffolding, we felt like we missed out on something. Still, it was pretty, and a stark contrast to long stretches of nothing. It’s such a grand church that it’s visible along the highway from a distance, the lone building surrounded by miles of land.

Like all missions, San Xavier was built to eradicate diversity. Why? Because, ‘the Church,” self-decreed ruler of thought, was troubled that somewhere on earth, there were people who dared to exist by a unique manifestation of the human spirit, and unimaginably, were not contributing in some material way to the church’s coffers. When you’re running an institution the size of the Vatican, you can’t go letting a bunch of Indians that you would never meet, living as they were in a remote area of desert that could not be reached except by traversing vast distances through great hardship and risk to personal health, go practice their own form of worship. It’s just not done. So by way of sealing the deal of forcible conversion and convincing these silly, earth respecting nomads, who managed to survive well for thousands of years in a land that’s even challenging for cacti to thrive, that they were wrong, the only sensible thing to do was spend untold sums of wealth building an edifice that proves your God is better than their Gods. If they’re not convinced, then there’s no choice but to assert your Christian right to violate the most important commandment and, assist them in shuffling off their mortal coil. And that, my friend, is the story of how the Mission was built.

Okay, maybe that’s a slightly cynical view, though I’m not entirely sure an inaccurate one.

The original mission was founded by a Jesuit in 1692. Sometime after 1768 the mission was destroyed by “less friendly Indian tribes,” as one website characterizes them. The Indians didn’t realize that when a bunch of pompous, self-important people invade your land and tell you what to think, you’re supposed to welcome and defer to them. At any rate, another mission was built two miles from the original location in 1783 and is the mission that remains standing today.

All kidding and sarcasm aside, the mission really is stately, beautiful, and worth the time to visit. In addition to its history, the church itself is ornate and features statues dressed in actual clothing, a point that, and I mean no disrespect, I found hilarious in its unusualness. It’s the only church I’ve ever visited that has dressed statues, though I think the gesture is sweet.

Anyway, you don’t need anymore of my sarcastic commentary. Here’s some information directly from the plaques in the museum. I’m not bothering with indenting, so everything from this point forward is a quote unless otherwise noted…There is also more information in the pictures section. It’s a lot so if you’re not a museum or history kind of person, just skip to the end to find the picture link.
Padre Kino was probably the first European to visit the Piman rancherias around Wa:k. His northern explorations between 1687 and 1711 pushed into new territory – the Pimeria Alta—which has been labeled the “rim of Christendom.”

Kino was escorted by Lieutenant Juan Manje on his journeys to the northern frontiers of New Spain. Spanish colonial policy relied heavily on the mission as a frontier institution. Colonial officials depended on the missionaries to concentrate scattered native groups at a relatively few mission sites. The missionary’s role, perceived by the Spanish, was to “pacify” the natives and make them loyal vassals of the crown of Spain. It was Kino who founded San Xavier Mission at the village of Wa:k in 1692.

This policy caused many problems between the Europeans and the Piman groups occupying the Pimeria Alta. Not the least was centuries old seasonal migration of the Pimans—traced back ot the Hohokam lifestyle. The natives remained in large rancherias during the summer and fall while tending and harvesting crops of corn, beans and squash. After harvest, they traveled to small camps to collect wild foods such as acorns and agaves, and to hunt rabbit and deer.

The Europeans failed to understand this lifestyle. They condemned mobility as “heathen vagabondage” because of their misunderstanding of the Pimans cultural and ecological adaptation to life in a sometimes harsh semi-arid environment.

Spanish missions were established in New Spain to serve as centers for the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith among native groups. The purpose of a mission was to Christianize and “civilize” the Indian population.

Along with the messages of salvation, the missionaries brought a new language, ideas, metal tools, livestock, and crops. The dog and possibly the turkey were the only domestic animals known in the Primeria Alta prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Horses, cattle, goats, chickens, and sheep were foreign animals to the Pimans and must have caused considerable excitement in the rancherias when they arrived. Fruit trees and vegetables, and especially wheat, played a major role in changing the Pimans centuries old diet and subsistence pattern.

The Spanish also brought a construction technique unknown to the Pimans—adobe brick making. With this new technology, the Pimans, under supervision, constructed structures several times the size of their humble grass huts.

Spanish occupation lasted until 1821, when Mexico declared herself a republic. The Mexican government was now in control of the Spanish built missions. In 1854, the United States ratified the Gadsden Purchase. This transaction made all of Arizona a U.S. territory. Wa:k and Tucson were now part of the United States.

The Hohokam, ancestors of the Tohono O’odham, lived in this area from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Pieces of their beautiful pottery, shell and stone work are still found along the Santa Cruz River and other drainages in the Tucson Basin.

Jesuit History, the Blackrobes
The Jesuit Order was founded in the sixteenth century by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits were called “blackrobes” because of the garb, or habit, of followers was the black frock or cassock of the lower clergy of the day.

Jesuits were first sent to New Spain in the fall of 1572. Father Pedro Sanchez, fifteen companions from Europe, and Jesuit survivors from Florida missions, arrived in Mexico City and began an unbroken chain of work that lasted almost two centuries.

Father Euseblo Franciso Kino was a Jesuit missionary who established a chain of missions in northwest Mexico. He was born in the Tyrolean Alps near Trent in northern Italy on August 10, 1645. He was educated in Trent, Austria and Germany and dedicated his life to St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits after recovering from a severe illness. Kino wrote:

To the most glorious and most pious thaumaturgus and Apostle of the Indies, San Francisco Xavier, we all owe very much. I owe him, first, my life, of which I was caused to despair by the physicians in the city of Hala of Tirol, in the year 1663, second, my entry into Company of Jesus, and third, my coming to these missions.

Kino received his first mission assignments in 1681. He had hoped to be sent to the Orient but instead was sent to New Spain. He was assigned to be Missionary and Royal Cartographer for an expedition to Baja California. Padre Kino worked with native groups on Baja—which was thought to be an island—and then was assigned to Sonora in 1686.

Kino was a traveler and an explorer. During his 24 years of residence at the mission of Dolores between 1687 and 1711—he made more than fifty journeys inland, and average of more than two per year. These journeys varied from a hundred to nearly a thousand miles in length—all made on horseback. He kept careful record of his travels including the drafting of maps.

Kino will forever be remembered as a great missionary, ranchman, mathematician, explorer, historian, and geographer of the Pimeria Alta.

Franciscan History, the Grayrobes
The terms “grayrobes” and “blackrobes” stem from the different religious garb worn by two distinct missionary Orders. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscans in the thirteenth century, favored simplicity of life and dress with the resulting robe, or habit, woven of strands of wool in its natural colors—white and black—without the sophistication of artificial dyes. The resulting color of the robe was gray.

Franciscans explored the Southwest long before the Jesuits arrived in Mexico, or New Spain in 1572. The first Franciscan to travel the Arizona-Sonora desert was Fray Marcos de Niza in 1538. He then guided the Coronado expedition in 1540, and one of his fellow Franciscans on that journey. Fray Juan de Padilla, was martyred on the plans of Kansas in 1542. Franciscans became permanent residents of the Arizona-Sonora desert only in 1768, after Royal suspicion and intrigue exiled the Jesuits from all Spanish lands. The movement was known in Europe as Regalism, and for nearly a century, its negative force continued to work likewise against the Franciscans in their subsequent efforts to extend the mission frontier beyond the last Spanish settlement at Tucson, north to the Gila River and the area of modern Phoenix.

In late 1780 and early 1781, four Franciscans, twenty-one soldiers, and a group of settlers with their families, totaling 160 people in all, established two Spanish colonies along the Colorado River and two missions for the Yuma Indians, upon whose the colonies were located. The colonies were called Concepcion and San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner—both located near modern day Yuma, AZ.

For six months, the Spaniards and Yumas tried to coexist. But the Spanish took Yuma land, allowed their livestock to forage through Yuma crops, introduced the whipping post, and made no secret of their contempt for the Indians. Understandably, the Yumas initiated an uprising against the intruders in July 1781.

Fathers Garces and Barrenche were martyred at Concepcio, and Fathers Juan Diaz and Joseph Moreno were martyred at Bucuner. The friars, along with the settlers and the military were caught in the middle of an uprising of 3000 Yumas, 250 miles beyond the last Spanish garrison. Seventy-four persons, mostly women and children, were held captive and 104 settlers and soldiers were killed.

Fray Francisco Garces was born April 12, 1738, in the town of Morata del Conde, in Aragon, Spain. He was ordained a priest at the age of 25 and three years later entered a seminary for missionaries, the Colegio de la Santa Cruz at Queretaro, Mexico. He was sent to the frontier mission of San Xavier del Bac in 1768.

Garces was pleased with his appointment to San Xavier. He enjoyed the people and the environment and was able to pursue his love of travel. Through the next decade, he stitched his name prominently in the fabric of history by crossing and recrossing the trails of the western desert. His treks carried him beyond Yuma to the Mojave and northwest to California. He was the Franciscan version of the Padre Kino.

Pictures of this excursion can be found here.
San Xavier Mission
Arizona Leisure