Happy Palm Sunday! We’ve finally gotten the camper repaired and have made our way to Benson, AZ. Benson is east of Tucson and we are camping at the Escapees Saguaro RV Park. We have been wanting to come to this area and this park in particular for quite some time. There are many things to do both in the RV Park and in the surrounding area. The town of Benson is not very large but has all of the basics. Its close proximity to many attractions and historic sites was one of the reasons we wanted to come here. Since we will be here just over a week, we set out to see a few, certainly not all, of the Top 10 things to see or do in this part of the state.
One of the first days after we arrived, we visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac which is about 10 miles south of Tucson. Located in the middle of the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation, this Mission was the northernmost Spanish Mission in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (originally part of Mexico). Established in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, the Mission was built near the Santa Cruz River. The original Mission was destroyed by the Apache Indians in 1770. The current Mission was rebuilt between 1783 and 1797 and is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and is a National Historic Landmark.
We arrived just in time to catch the final guided tour of the day. Our guide was excellent and very knowledgeable. She pointed out many of the unique features of this Mission. For example, the Mission was constructed using low fire clay bricks, stone, and mortar in the Baroque style. The walls are 3-6 feet wide making the church a cool place to be during the hot desert summers. The Mission church is adorned with a beautiful white stucco with Moorish inspired features such as octagonal towers. The colors and designs used to decorate the interior of the Mission reflect the Moorish influence as the walls are painted in geometric designs. There are also features that reflect Indian influences such as the main doors to the church are made of mesquite wood and are the original doors. Visible too is the Franciscan cord which appears in the interior and exterior architectural design. There are also lots of shells incorporated in the designs. The shell is a symbol of St. James the Greater, the patron saint of Spain. These features can be seen over the windows, along the interior walls, and embedded in the façade.
Although the Mission was originally established by the Jesuits, the Franciscans took over the Mission when the Spaniards expelled the Jesuits from the New World in 1767. The Franciscans remained at the Mission until 1828 when the Mexican government banned Spanish-born priests from serving in Mexico. After the Franciscan priests left, the Mission fell into disrepair. For many decades, it was abandoned. When this area became part of the USA, the Mission fell under the auspices of the Santa Fe diocese and they began to reestablish the Mission and to repair it. In 1913, after major repairs, the Franciscans returned to the Mission.
Our guide was a member of the Patronato San Xavier that works to help preserve the Mission by raising funds to restore the exterior and interior of the Mission. They have worked with conservators to clean and refurbish the paintings inside the church as well as to restore the exterior of the structure. In the photos of the entrance, you can see that the left hand side of the façade has been restored but the right hand side has not. According to our guide, the restoration of the right hand side will cost $3.8 million dollars. They are currently trying to raise said funds.
Today the Mission is still active and holds services weekly. The Mission is also a pilgrimage site. Thousands come to visit it every year. Additionally, it has a convent and a parochial school. The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity live in the convent and teach at the school.
The Mission San Xavier del Bac is truly a marvelous historic site. It is well worth a visit.