One of Tucson’s most historic sites is a 400-year-old church set in the desert and known for its architecture and collection of religious art.
Founded by a Jesuit priest in 1692, Mission San Xavier del Bac is believed to be the oldest European-style building in Tucson. The carved facade and two brilliant white towers of this active Roman Catholic church are a stark contrast to the surrounding hills and desert. Inside the church are dozens of paintings, frescoes, carvings, statues and ornaments.
The first thing that captures your attention after passing through the entrance is the colossal altar piece. Move closer to study the intricate carvings that tell the biblical story of creation. Look to the left and you’ll see a glass sarcophagus containing a statue of St. Francis Xavier, in whose honor the church was built. Visitors pin small metal symbols to the effigy’s cloth covering, representing the miracles they are praying for.
Take your time to appreciate the artwork. Every wall is covered with paintings, columns are decorated with angel sculptures and statues of saints are tucked away in niches. Note the repeating theme of the shell in pictures, window treatments and on the facade and figurines. The shell has has been a symbol of Christian pilgrimage for hundreds of years.
During your visit you may notice some reconstruction work. An earthquake and lightning strikes in previous centuries have weakened parts of the structure. Renovations are ongoing when funds are available.
After leaving the church, learn more about its history by visiting the small museum next door. See religious artifacts and historic mementos such as the oldest known photograph of Mission San Xavier del Bac, dating to the early 1870s. Watch the 20-minute video that covers the church’s past and the restoration work.
Mission San Xavier del Bac is open daily from early morning until late afternoon. Located in the Santa Cruz Valley, the church is 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of downtown Tucson, just off the interstate highway. Admission and on-site car parking are free.