Friday, January 15, 2010

The White Dove of the Desert

We were about nine miles south of Tucson on I-19 when we saw a magnificent white structure in the distance surrounded by the brown hills and mountains of the Santa Cruz Valley.

We left the interstate and drove along streets lined with the small adobe homes of the Tohono O'odham settlement. The village had been called Bac, "place where the water appears," because the Santa Cruz River, which ran underground for some distance, reappears on the surface nearby.

The brilliant white structure was the San Xavier del Bac Mission, appropriately called the "White Dove of the Desert" and acclaimed by many to be the finest example of mission architecture in the United States. It is a graceful blend of Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

The deep blue sky presented the ideal background to photographing the towers, dome, and arches of the Mission. We spent a long time looking at the combiniations of these components as we walked around the grounds of the Mission.

The Jesuit missionary and explorer, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, first visited Bac in 1692. Eight years later in 1700, he laid the foundations of the first church, some two miles north of the present site of the Mission. He named it San Xavier in honor of his chosen patron, St. Francis Xavier.

The current Mission Church is made of kiln-baked adobe bricks that are covered with a plaster of lime, local sand and cactus juice. This wash gives the mission its glowing white color.

The foundation of stones and mortar under the front towers is nearly six feet deep.

The massive, carved mesquite-wood doors provided additional subjects for study.

With a crown and royal robe, this is believed to be the statue of Saint Elizabeth.

The east tower of the Mission was never completed. Several theories exist about why it was left unfinished. It is not known if the church's original 7,000 peso loan was not enough or if the priests decided not to finish it so that no taxes would have to be paid. Another theory says that a worker was killed during construction and no one else could be convinced to go up.

Its stilted arches, domes, and fantastic windows, are Moorish.

The distinctive towers and belfries were developed in Mexico and most of the accented yet restrained decoration has a touch of the Aztec.

The design produced by the sunlight coming through the openings in the wall provided a subtle contrast to the stark white of the Mission.

Just west of the church is the mortuary chapel, a very small, one room building. Inside, hundreds of candles burn against the far wall.

Worshipers leave the candles which represent their mandas ("promises" or "vows") and prayers.

But we spent more time studying the angles, arches, and bells outside the chapel.

Catholic services are still held at San Xavier daily. There are no registered members of the parish, visitors and people from neighboring Tucson often pack the Mission on Sunday mornings.

We found ourselves sometimes just standing and admiring the architecture and the blinding white against the deepest blue imaginable of the sky. This black and white view was a final memory of our visit to the Mission.

But before we leave, we want to show you the interior . . . tomorrow.

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