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During the late winter and early spring, folks living in chillier parts of the country are more than ready to go someplace sunny. When The Savvy Traveler's Diane de la Paz wanted to thaw out, she headed for the desert health spas and dry weather of Tucson. But just outside the city, she found a different kind of warmth -- inside a 200-year-old Franciscan mission.

Feature: Another Kind of Desert Warmth

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Driving south across the Sonoran Desert, there came a point where I went from tourist to pilgrim - and my winter getaway to Arizona turned into something else. I'd seen the triangle on my map. Mission San Xavier del Bac, just off Highway 19, nine miles from Tucson, out in the middle of the Tono'odham Indian reservation. But that didn't prepare me for the way the mission looks, shimmering in the Sonoran sun like a mirage. Ever since it was built here, San Xavier's been luring people off the highway. Bernard Fontana is a local historian.

Fontana: "This has been an icon of Southern Arizona since the second half of the 19th century. In fact, even the 49ers on their way to California were awed by the building, so having visitors is nothing unusual."
The Gold Rush brought that first wave of travelers, and today, visitors are just as struck by San Xavier's collection of Mexican baroque art, fully restored for the mission's 200th anniversary. A team of Italian conservators calls this the Sistine Chapel of the United States. But when I arrive, I don't want to just march into this place of worship and gawk at the statues. I decide to go to Mass. Having grown up Catholic, I know the steps, and hope I can blend into the crowd. Again, Bernard Fontana.
Fontana: "It's kind of like the biggest bus stop in the world. People who come to church here live in the wealthiest areas of Tucson, people from the local community, Mexicanos who live in the neighborhood. During the Our Father, there they are, holding hands."
During Mass, I watch young moms and dads trying to quiet restless children, elderly women kneeling in their crisp skirts, teenagers coolly glancing at one another - just like at the Masses I went to as a kid. What's different is the constant advance and retreat of lone men and women, coming up the aisles to the statues of the Virgin Mary, or to the patron saint of the community, Francisco Xavier. Fontana tells me they're pilgrims, who make the 9-mile trip on foot from Tucson.
Fontana: "It doesn't matter to them that there's a service going on. They'll go directly to a saint."
An army of painted and sculpted saints populates the church, plus a hundred and eighty angels, hovering and singing overhead. An enormous painting of the Last Supper covers one wall, and the Pentecost stretches across another. It's a lot to take in. After Mass, I go out for some air, and I find a narrow clay stairway up to the roof, where a restoration crew is working. Foreman Danny Morales marvels at how well the adobe structure has held up, without benefit of rebar.
Morales: "They used, of course, the natural resources...but there was nothing out here. Look at those flying buttresses...that tower...it's pretty amazing."
As always, the midday Arizona sun shines hot on San Xavier...but somehow, the church's creamy surface stays cool to the touch. The city seems a long way off.
Morales: "I think when people see the mission out here ... all by itself... 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. 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."
Reluctantly, I come down from the roof, and notice a tiny chapel, maybe 20 yards from the main church. Inside the is a shrine, filled with milagros - small offerings of thanks to God, or petitions for his help. Someone has left a long, black piece of braided hair. There's a sonogram of a baby yet to be born, and handwritten letters, all lit by flickering candles. The chapel has none of the magnificent art that made Mission San Xavier famous. But to me, the milagros are the essence of the place, evidence that this is a living community of people who share one faith. There's room here for tourists, for pilgrims, and for those of us who are somewhere in between. For the Savvy Traveler, I'm Diane de la Paz, at Mission San Xavier del Bac, just south of Tucson, Arizona.

Savvy Resources:

For more on Mission San Xavier del Bac...

Mission Churches of the Sonoran Desert, from the University of Arizona Library

A photographic essay of Mission San Xavier del Bac, by Helga Teiwes and Bernard L. Fontana

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