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Mission San Xavier del Bac

In the Sonoran desert, I stopped being a tourist and slipped into a pilgrim's shoes. A weekend getaway to Tucson turned into something better.

Driving toward Mexico on I-19, I knew it was coming: Mission San Xavier del Bac, the 203-year-old church built by Spanish Franciscans and the Tohono O'odham Indians, was a small triangle on my map. That didn't prepare me for the way it looked — or how it felt to go inside.

The dome and towers of San Xavier shimmer in the sun like a mirage, alone in the wide open 9 miles from Tucson's southern outskirts. Since little has been built around it, the mission still appears as a sentry at the gate to the Southwest.

"This has been an icon of southern Arizona since the second half of the 19th century," said Bernard Fontana, a Tucson historian and ardent fan of San Xavier. "Even the 49ers on their way to California were awed by the building."

Some 130 years after the Gold Rush, Tucson residents began calling Mission San Xavier "the white dove of the desert" and formed Patronato San Xavier, a group that has raised money to restore it. The church's interior is redolent with paintings and sculpture, resembling an Andalusian cathedral — but it's no museum. San Xavier is the parish church for the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation surrounding it, and every Sunday Mass is a mix of native people, members of old Tucson families and visitors from across the country.

"This is kind of like the biggest bus stop in the world," said Fontana. "People who come to church here live in the wealthiest areas of Tucson." They come with people from the local community and Mexicanos who live in the neighborhood.

"When they say the Our Father, there they are, all standing there holding hands."

I attended a Sunday noon Mass and watched one parishioner after another slip into the church, go quickly to an alcove and then depart. They're here to pray to a particular saint, such as the village patron San Xavier or the Virgin of Guadalupe, said Fontana. "It doesn't matter to them that there's a service going on. They'll go directly to a saint."

One might think the parishioners who come here every week would get used to San Xavier's treasures. But Lorraine Drachman, daughter of a venerable Tucson family, says she's anything but jaded.

"You still, inevitably, find something new every time you come here," she said, adding that the mission is a desert creature with no close relatives. In the 1780s and '90s, the Franciscan friars hired native craftspeople to decorate the interior. "So I call this the most unique display of the provincial Mexican baroque" art, she said. "You'll never see anything like it in the world." Mexico City, some 1,500 miles away, was the nearest population center when the mission was being built. Artisans found traveling north, across wilderness populated by Apaches, too hazardous.

So without urbanites to dictate what was fashionable, the Franciscans and the Tohono O'odham constructed their own meeting place. They filled San Xavier with angels and saints — flying across the ceiling or just gazing benevolently out to the people in the pews. There was no budget for real Spanish tile, so they painted geometric patterns on the lower walls. No ornate golden picture frames were coming from Europe, so they painted those straight onto the wall, too, around enormous renderings of the Pentecost and the Last Supper.

From the entrance, with its carved lions, to the altar, with its statues of Mary and St. Francis, the mission houses what Fontana calls one of the great art collections of North America. A cat and mouse face each other above the main doorway; 180 angels grace the interior. Scallop shells, the symbols of St. James' pilgrimage through Spain, mingle with images of Sts. Dominic, Francis and Mary. "What's overlooked are the details," said Fontana. "The church is really a book. The Franciscans tried to write a book," that the native people "who certainly didn't read Spanish, could understand."

The friars' reverence for the Holy Trinity, Christ's apostles and the saints makes this "book" — the main church building — its power. The statues and paintings seem imbued with the artists' faith, so much that I believe they could stir even staunch agnostics if they were to step inside.

Outside, however, many visitors are puzzled by Mission San Xavier's mismatched towers. One has no turret or cross.

"They ran out of money," Fontana said. "The Franciscans borrowed the money (to build the church) from a Sonoran rancher. They say he was clucking like a hen to be repaid. The only collateral they had was in wheatfields that hadn't yet been planted." Eventually those crops were grown and harvested, but not soon enough to finish the second tower.

Cut to the late 1990s, when a team of conservators came to San Xavier from Europe. Astonished, they called this the Sistine Chapel of the United States and set about cleaning 20 decades of dust from the adobe walls. One leader of the restoration team, Carlo Giantomassi, quit his job at the Vatican to come to work in Arizona.

"The decision was made to intervene as little as possible," said Fontana. "Eighty percent of the original artwork is still in there," though some layers of paint had regrettably been added during the years since the church was built in 1797.

For San Xavier's bicentennial in 1997, Fontana, Drachman and their team of glamorous conservators threw a party to celebrate the end of the interior restoration project. Then they turned to a local team that would begin polishing and bolstering the outside.

Team foreman Danny Morales grew up a few miles from San Xavier, so its arches and flying buttresses are a familiar sight. But standing on the roof, he expresses admiration — for the adobe that has stood, without benefit of rebar, for two centuries.

"I think when people see the mission out here . . . all by itself, (with) no urban sprawl all over it, no pavement or anything, just seeing it out here, you still wonder what it was like 200 years ago," he said. "You're in your own little world out here. I think people who come here see that. It just leaves you with something of an awe."

Morales added that this work, restoring the church's exterior, feels almost like a vacation when compared to jobs within the city of Tucson. And even under the midday sun, the mission's creamy surfaces feel cool to the touch.

Reluctantly, I came down from the roof. After descending a narrow clay stairway into the vestibule, I walked outside, and down a path to a tiny chapel about 20 yards from the main church.

Drawn forward by the scent of burning candles, I found another kind of sanctuary inside the chapel. It was filled with milagros — offerings of thanks to God or petitions for help from him or from Mary. A woman I spoke to outside told me she had seen a Tono'odham man cut off his long, braided hair and leave it at the wooden altar. Mothers had left sonograms of their children yet to be born. Photographs, drawings of faces and letters also lay beneath the flickering votives.

This quiet chapel had none of the gorgeous art that has made Mission San Xavier famous. But the milagros, in their humility, were just as powerful in their expression of faith. They showed me that this place is more than a repository for antiquities. The parish is a living community, kept vital by people who look to God for sustenance through the stages of their lives. And as it was when it was first built, Mission San Xavier is an oasis for travelers who are thirsty for spiritual renewal.