A Brief History of Mission San Xavier del Bac

A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692. Construction of the current church began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. 

The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church's interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space.

The church retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious needs of its parishioners.


The Mission is 9 miles south of downtown Tucson, Arizona just off of Interstate 19. Take exit 92 (San Xavier Road) and follow signs to the Mission.

There is no admission charge to visit Mission San Xavier. Some 200,000 visitors come each year from all over the world to view what is widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

The History: 

The current church dates from the late 1700's, when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. In 1783, Franciscan missionary Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain was able to begin construction on the present structure using money borrowed from a Sonoran rancher. He hired an architect, Ignacio Gaona, and a large workforce of O'odham to create the present church.

Following Mexican independence in 1821, San Xavier became part of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan of the 19th Century departed in 1837. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the Mission joined the United States. In 1859 San Xavier became part of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1866 Tucson became an incipient diocese and regular services were held at the Mission once again. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission in 1872. Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity now teach at the school and reside in the convent. To view the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity website http://fscc-calledtobe.org please select from the left menu on the History page.

The Franciscans returned to the Mission in 1913. Recently, Mission San Xavier became a separate nonprofit entity. It remains a testament to the endurance of culture thoughout our history.


1692  Father Kino visits the village of Wa:k
1700  Father Kino begins foundations on a church never built
1711  Father Kino dies in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico
1756  Father Espinosa constructs the 1st church
1767  Jesuits are expelled from New Spain
1768  Spanish Franciscans take over the Mission
1783  Construction begins on the present church
1797  The Mission church is completed
1821  Spanish Franciscans leave
1846  Cooke's Mormon battalion passes by the Mission
1854  Gadsden Purchase puts the Mission inside the United States
1859  Santa Fe diocese begins first repairs of the Mission
1887  Earthquake damages the Mission
1905  Bishop Granjon begins major repairs
1913  Franciscans return to the Mission
1939  Lightning strikes the West Tower
1953  Church facade is restored
1963  San Xavier becomes a National Historic Landmark
1978  Patronato San Xavier established to preserve the Mission
1989  Leaking walls force emergency restoration
1992  Conservators begin a 5-year rescue effort of the interior

Today the restoration continues when funds are available.

The Architecture: 

Constructed of low-fire clay brick, stone and lime mortar, the entire structure is roofed with masonry vaults, making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U. S. borders. The architect, Ignacio Gaona, is credited with building another church in Caborca, Sonora Mexico.

Little is known about the people who decorated the interior. The artwork was probably commissioned by Fr. Velderrain's successor and most likely created by artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico). The sculpture was created in guild workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta to its destination at the Mission. Craftsmen created gessoed clothing once the sculpture was in place. 

The church contains numerous references to the Franciscan cord both on the facade and throughout the church.

The shell, a symbol of pilgrimage after the patron saint of Spain, Santiago or James the Greater, is replicated all through the structure in window treatments, the sanctuary, the facade and other details within the interior.

The Baroque architecture style features playful dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbling, and overall sense of balance. 

The Restoration:

An earthquake in 1887 knocked down the mortuary wall and damaged parts of the church. Extensive repairs began in 1905, under Bishop Henry Granjon. The next round of restoration followed the years after 1939 when a lightning strike hit the West Tower lantern.

A group of community leaders formed the Patronanto San Xavier in 1978 to promote the conservation of Mission San Xavier. Shortly after a comprehensive study of its condition was completed, water seeped into the west wall of the church's sanctuary, forcing an emergency conservation effort by the Patronato. In a five-year program, an international team of conservators cleaned, removed over-painting, and repaired the interior painted and sculptured art of Mission San Xavier del Bac.

The Patronato continues exterior preservation work begun in 1999. Its restoration team is removing the earlier coating of cement plaster, repairing the historic brick beneath, and re-finishing the exterior surface with a traditional lime plaster. The sooner the cement can be removed, the greater the amount of original fabric can be preserved. More remains to be done if we are to guarantee this landmark for future generations. Please help us preserve this national treasure.

Send your tax-deductible donation to:
Patronato San Xavier
P.O. Box 522 
Tucson, AZ 85702

Restoration funded in part by Save America's Treasures and a grant from the Historic Preservation Heritage Fund which is funded by the Arizona Lottery and administered by the Arizona State Parks Board.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
                                                                  White Dove of the Desert                                                Tucson AZ