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San Xavier del Bac Mission

From California to Texas, one of the most popular road trips is visiting old Spanish colonial missions. Of these San Xavier on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona stands out. It is not only a great American art treasure but is alive with a staggering diversity of people who call this place their own. Hal Cannon and Teresa Jordan of the The Open Road recently visited the Mission to see what draws so many people there.

San Xavier del Bac Mission
by Hal Cannon and Teresa Jordan
The Open Road

Listen with RealAudio: The San Xavier del Bac Mission

It's Sunday morning, 8:15 AM on a sparkling clear day, as we pull into the mission parking lot. It's full, but the grounds are empty, a sure sign that the morning's first Mass has begun.

Hal: Look at that...it's beautiful.

Teresa: Boy, the early morning light it is gorgeous. Some call this church the White Dove of the Desert; others, America's Sistine Chapel. Few people realize that it is located on the Tohono O'odham reservation. Brilliant and baroque, the mission seems out of place in this dry dusty desert. Its twin white towers gleam under a sky so blue -- it can't possibly be real.

Hal: Inside, tourists in sneakers hold hands and pray with Native Americans, who hold hands with wealthy Tucson suburbanites, who hold hands with young Mexican-American girls in white starched dresses. The service is in three languages.

Teresa: For the first time, we hear the O'odham language. The choir stands in front of a magnificent altar of gold and silver leaf, the serene faces of brightly painted saints and seraphim looking down. At a later Mass, a local Hispanic band provides the music. This place is different from other missions, those that stand silently as historical museums...this place is alive with worship.

Teresa: San Xavier is central in many of its parishioners lives; it also touches first-time visitors. In the church courtyard we meet Kathleen Walker, who has written a book about the mission.

Kathleen: I've had people come up to the table when I'm signing books...crying...and they go. "I'm not Catholic, but there's something here that moves me, and I can't explain it. It's something that touches people. This is a good place.

Teresa: And you feel that on arriving.

Kathleen: Do you feel that?

Teresa: Yes.

Kathleen: If there are such things as holy places...this is one of them. I believe that.

Teresa: Kathleen is right; we do feel the power of this place. We want to know more but everyone is so busy today. Maybe tomorrow things will settle down.

Hal: It's Monday morning, 8 a.m., and the place already buzzes with activity. A tour bus is pulling up in the parking lot as local villagers heat up caldrons of oil under shade huts, preparing to sell fried-bread popovers. Young Indian kids in parochial uniforms saunter to the mission school next door.

Hal: The Tohono O'odham language is part of the curriculum here at the mission school. Although large communities of Hispanics and Anglos consider this their parish, it belongs most directly to the tribe.

Teresa: Jesuit missionaries first came here 300 years ago to convert the Native Americans and then Franciscans built the miision. With native help, they finished it in 1797, and spared no expense. Jim Griffith is a noted folklorist and lives nearby.

Jim: It really is remarkable that such an elaborate building, decorated on the inside with real gold leaf and silver leaf. The colors were the most expensive available -- pigments imported from Europe.

Hal: After Mexico gained independence from Spain, the Church abandoned the mission for several decades but the O'odham continued practicing their religion, and kept the church under lock and key, safe from marauding Apaches, treasure hunting forty-niners, and the ravages of time.

Jim: So it really is the Odham villagers who not only built the church in the first place, but cared for it.

Teresa: That tradition of caring for the Mission continues today.

Gabriel: This is my favorite...the east chapel.

Teresa: Gabriel Wilson takes us through the church. A member of the O'odham tribe, he apprenticed with professional conservators to learn how to restore the paintings, statues and metallic leaf. He is now the curator of art here and we have asked him to show us his handiwork. We're standing under a statue of Mary as the immaculate conception. Her hands crossed at her chest, she gazes down serenely from her gilded alcove. More than two hundred years of soot, dust and grime had severely damaged her. Cleaning this statue was a spiritual experience for Gabriel.

Gabriel: Inside, I was praying to myself. Let me do this for you. It's a relationship that's hard for me to explain. This was a personal experience for me...having to do this with my hands, actually having to clean it off. It was very humbling.

Teresa: As we continue our tour, Gabriel points out subtle details: little cherubs playing violins, rabbits, snakes and mice, a serpentine sash tying the entire interior together. It's easy to be transported back in time here.

I imagine hearing the tribal language and them talking with each other, working up here, and laughing. It makes me wonder what they were thinking.

Teresa: Because of the historical connection to this place, do you think this work would feel the same if you were working on some other church or does it feel a particular honor to be here?

Gabriel: There's more honor to it, because my roots are here and this church was built for us here. And I'm very grateful to be the one chosen to do that. I feel very fortunate.

Teresa: Gabriel says he'll care for the art in this church for the rest of his life. His young son often comes along when he works, and Gabriel looks forward to training him in restoration, along with other members of his tribe.

Hal: With an overlay of Spanish baroque and Latino devotion, a bus of sun-stunned farmers from Michigan arrives, as does a school bus teeming with pure energy marginally contained by nuns. This place works all at once as church, museum, school and community center. But at the core it is the desert people, the Tohono O'odham, who built this place and have continued to nurture it over the generations.

When the last bus has left and the parking lot is empty these people will still be here. From the Open Road I'm Hal Cannon with Teresa Jordan for The Savvy Traveler.

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