Pope Francis is said to be a conservative, humble man. Reportedly, he spent years teaching math in the Argentinian backwater because he held traditional views not favored by many progressive, some would say liberal, Jesuits. Beloved Pope John Paul 23rd, also a non-Italian priest who held traditional religious views, rescued Father Bergoglio from obscurity when he made him an archbishop. Now Pope, Francis probably wouldn’t like Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Nicknamed The White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is south of Tucson, Arizona, on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Because of this, subdivisions, shopping centers, and Interstate exits have not grown around it. It still sits out in the desert with blue mountains in the far distance as it did when Ruth & I first visited it many years ago. Back then, we were the only non-residents there.
We revisited in February, 2013, and were surprised to learn that it has become a MAJOR tourist attraction. The parking lot was huge and full. Tour groups moved about the church and crowded the small museum. A 1997 PBS special about The Dove played continuously to people sitting on benches listening to what was more of an appeal for restoration funds than a documentary about the place.
And what a place! A National Historic Landmark since 1963, San Xavier was founded by Jesuit Eusebio Kino in 1692. The dark, ornate church (“ultra-baroque”) that visitors see today was completed in 1797. According to sanxaviermission.org, it’s now “the oldest intact European structure in Arizona”. Despite changes over the years made necessary by Apache raids, earthquakes, etc., a San Xavier visit today is very close to a time-traveling 19th century experience. It’s still an active church with people lighting candles and silently praying with tumult all around them. Masses occur every day of the week. Five greyrobed Franciscan Friars officiate. Why not blackrobed Jesuits like Francis?
San Xavier has flown many flags, Spain’s when it was first founded. In 1767, Jesuits were expelled from New Spain by the Spanish King, and the next year Franciscans took over. A few years later they began construction of the current church. They left between 1828 & 1850 when San Xavier was under Mexican Rule and secularized like churches in Russia under Communism. After the Gadsden Purchase and Arizona statehood, Franciscans returned in 1913. They remain.
San Xavier’s exterior is a dazzling white & earth toned beauty. The interior shows the work of many loving, talented folk artists, probably native Americans, who carved and painted statues, frescoes, etc. many of which are surprisingly well-preserved. This would be a slam-dunk 5 compass attraction, but crowds & commercialism (natives selling fry bread on the parking lot, aisles full of gaping tourists clutching guidebooks, etc.) keep it 4 Compass. Pope Francis will probably never show up in the Popemobile, wave to the gapers, and stay for a photo op.