Start typing “San Xavier del Bac” into a search engine and one of the first choices to come up in auto-complete is “San Xavier mummy.” This is him.
Except that he’s not a mummy. He’s made of wood and was originally the crucified Christ. According to this article, the statue was moved from the mission church at Tumacacori, about 40 miles south of San Xavier, when Tumacacori was abandoned in the mid-19th century. In the 20th century, the statue regenerated into St. Francis Xavier. A sign next to the statue welcomes visitors to try to lift the head of St. Francis with two fingers, saying that only the pure at heart will be able to do so. I didn’t even try.
Since he’s the patron saint of the mission, St. Francis Xavier can also be found — upright — directly behind the altar.
Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded in 1692 by Eusebio Kino, on what’s now the Tohono O’odham reservation, about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, Arizona. Father Kino was a Jesuit missionary who wandered the southwest trying to convert the native population and establishing missions in the late 17th/early 18th centuries. His success at the converting part was so-so, but he was very successful at the establishing part. There are about 24 Father Kino missions throughout Sonora, Mexico and southern Arizona.
In 1768, the Jesuits were thrown out of all Spanish lands (because King Carlos III of Spain, supported by some nonJesuit Catholic orders, thought that the Jesuits were getting a little too uppity) and the Franciscans took over San Xavier, where they remain to this day. The current church was commissioned by the Franciscans, starting the 1783 and completed in 1797. No one knows who did the actual building, but the likely guess — since the church was built in Tahono O’Odham territory — is that they were Tohono O’odham workman.
The church continues to be an active Catholic parish, serving the people of the Tohono O’odham nation. When Patricia and I were there last Saturday, a mass baptism had just finished and there were several tiny tots running around in white baptismal-wear.
The Franciscan order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi, not St. Francis Xavier. St. Francis of Assisi, as most know, is the patron saint of animals. So it’s not surprising that the church is open to all creatures, great and small, who want to get out of the Arizona sun and nap in a cool corner of the vestibule.
There’s a tiny museum in the church complex, as well as a film that tells about the restoration and conservation of the church. In 1992, a major restoration began, headed by chief conservator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York (who had also worked on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel). The work was lead by Italian and Turkish conservators, and involved a group of Tohono O’odham apprentices, who were trained to carry on the work after the international team was long gone.
If you have any interest in churches at all — or even if you don’t — I’d recommend San Xavier del Bac as the one must-see for any visitor to Tucson. It combines Native American culture, Spanish colonial history and stunning architecture, and it’s free (although there’s a tiny gift shop where you can buy church and Native American themed trinkets to support the restoration). If you can combine a visit to San Xavier with a visit to Tumacacori, an unrestored Father Kino mission now a National Historical Park, it’s what I’d call the perfect southern Arizona history tourist day.