At the edge of a vast desert plain, seven miles south of downtown Tucson in southern Arizona, Mission San Xavier del Bac is a beautiful ornate structure, built between 1787 and 1797, replacing an earlier building destroyed by the Apache - one of a series of Spanish missions constructed in the Sonoran Desert in the late 17th century by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, considered the best surviving example of such mission architecture in the US. It is also the oldest European building in Arizona.
The mission falls within the San Xavier Indian Reservation, part of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and it has a peaceful, secluded setting, bordered to the north by farmland, irrigated by water from the Santa Cruz River, and to the south by a dispersed residential area, with the open desert just beyond.
The mission is a major tourist destination, visited by over 200,000 people each year, many of whom are pilgrims, some traveling here on foot or by horseback. The place has staged regular services ever since its foundation, and is still managed by the Franciscans. The mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
The mission is centered on a church, built in the shape of a cross, aligned north to south; at north end is the sanctuary, with the domed crossing in front, either side of which are west and east transepts, and then the nave, the southern end flanked by west and east towers - this latter section forms the south frontage, the aspect most frequently photographed. Most of the exterior is whitewashed giving rise to its nickname of 'white dove of the desert', the exception being the central section of the south front which is clad in carved mesquite, on three levels, down to the massive doors at the base. The church also includes a sacristy at the northeast corner, between sanctuary and transept, and is linked to by various subsidiary buildings arranged around three sides of an open courtyard, the cloisters. The interior of the church is elaborately decorated with statues, frescoes and paintings.
San Xavier del Bac mission was founded in 1692, though work on the church did not begin until 1700, at a site about 2 miles away from the current structure. This original church was not completed, due to death of Father Kino, and it was not until 1756 that the mission was fully established, yet it endured for little more than a decade, until destroyed by an Apache raid, around 1770. The threat of further attacks was greatly diminished by construction of a fort, Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón in 1793, and this allowed safe rebuilding of the mission, a task complete by 1797. Previously within the Spanish colony, the territory was restored to Mexico following the independence settlement of 1821, soon after which all Spanish-born priests and missionaries were required to leave, and management of the church past to the Tohono O'odham peoples. The land was acquired by the United States in 1853, the Gadsden Purchase, and became part of the new territory of Arizona. The mission was adopted into the Santa Fe Diocese in 1859, and has remained in regular use ever since.