The Mission San Xavier del Bac: A Shrine Without Borders

Parachuting domes held aloft by frescoed angels, a battalion of saints staring out from a vast, shining, multi-paneled retablo, a pair of golden lions guarding the altar—we are overwhelmed by all we see as we walk into the Mission San Xavier del Bac. We smell burning sage as Tim Lewis—parishioner, member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and conservator—lifts smoking herbs toward the two life-sized angels suspended at the entrance to the sanctuary, their wings and robes vibrant with restored gold leaf and painted flowers.

When Mr. Lewis was a child, these carved angels frightened him the most. They loomed on either side of the altar, their wood and fabric blackened at that time with smoke from votive candles and incense. “You couldn’t make out images,” Mr. Lewis recalls now, 50 years later. “Even the statues were dark. So it was kind of spooky. And, you know, we had candlelight. It was intimidating.”

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“You know, when people come here, they pray. They leave their prayers here, and so it’s a heavy burden on the church—the saints especially." 

Early this Tuesday morning, the church still rests in a cool shadow. Soon, the cemetery chapel will be blazing with so many votive candles it will feel like walking into a furnace. But for now, with few visitors present, Mr. Lewis takes the time to walk and smoke the aisles of the church, as he has been asked to do, weekly, by his community’s elders.

“You know, when people come here, they pray,” Mr. Lewis says when he has finished. “They leave their prayers here, and so it’s a heavy burden on the church—the saints especially. That’s all I’m doing, I’m just cleaning.”

We had driven 700 miles to bring our own burdens to the church. It was June. Stories of immigrant children being separated from their parents were everywhere in the news, and any resolution to that horror was uncertain. In the midst of tired, polarized debates over the U.S.-Mexican border, I wanted to go back to Arizona, where I was born, to Tucson, where I lived for many years, so that we could visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, a place that has withstood the challenges of shifting borders, overlapping territories and cross-cultural barriers for more than 300 years.

In those centuries, the mission—and the part of the Sonoran Desert that surrounds it—has belonged to Spain, Mexico and the United States, though the land has been home to the Tohono O’odham Nation since long before European colonists dreamed of their own expansion. The mission’s founder, an energetic Italian Jesuit named Eusebio Francisco Kino, established several missionary locations in what is now Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona, including San Xavier del Bac in 1692, near the village of Wa:k.

Jesuit success in the area proved to be the order’s downfall. King Carlos III of Spain, suspicious of the Jesuits’ growing wealth and influence, decided New Spain would be better off without them. In 1767, all Jesuits were deported, some dying on their way into exile, and the mission fell into the care of the Franciscans, who spearheaded the construction of the present church. Designed by a baroque-influenced Basque mason, financed by a Sonoran rancher, decorated with statues made in Mexico City workshops and built by O’odham laborers who were paid in food and tobacco, miraculously, and against all odds, the mission has become the finest surviving example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.

Given that the mission now serves as a local parish while receiving 200,000 visitors each year—a tremendous burden, indeed—it has also become, to borrow a phrase from Mircea Eliade, an axis mundi, a sacred point through which space and time—territory and history—are continuously reincorporated into their eternal significance by the people who worship there. That persistent religious intention prevents the church from becoming a mere historical monument and situates it instead as a true holy place, where heaven, earth and hell convene.

“He went all the way from Sonora to California, and there was no borders. It was with an idea, a belief. The belief: when there is something good to do, there is no borders.”

Matilde Rubio, a conservator at the shrine, pays special attention to these layers of history, place and meaning. She works with the prudent eye of an art historian, yet she has another, more personal connection to this place. She left Spain to marry Mr. Lewis in the 1990s, and since then she has become an active member of the parish with an acute sensitivity for the relationship between the Tohono O’odham and their church. For Ms. Rubio, the mission’s past proposes a way of life in the midst of a culture crossed by borders that threaten the life of the mission. Time and again, she thinks of Father Kino.

“He took his mule,” she says. “He went all the way from Sonora to California, and there was no borders. It was with an idea, a belief. The belief: when there is something good to do, there is no borders.”

On the altar of the west transept, beneath a statue of the Man of Sorrows, you will find the focal point of the mission’s devotional life: a carved effigy of St. Francis Xavier, S.J. He reclines on a satin pillow beneath a hand-sewn blanket, to which petitioners fasten their prayers, often in the form of milagros—tiny metal charms shaped as body parts, people, animals or objects—each of which might take on a multitude of special intentions.

For a petitioner, a heart-shaped milagro can express simultaneously a prayer for a heart in mourning, an offering after cardiac surgery, a call to unify the hearts of a community and adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In this sense, a milagro is not a fixed symbolic system; rather, it embodies, sacramentally, entire languages that are traditionally used to speak to God, and pinned to the body of the saint. Recycled for use again, as milagros at the mission are, it embodies the prayers of entire communities and enables their stories to co-exist.

Recycled for use again, as milagros at the mission are, it embodies the prayers of entire communities and enables their stories to co-exist.

It is the same with the carved wooden body on this altar, this santo, which is adaptable, almost without limit, to serve the needs of the community, and which was originally, perhaps, not an effigy of St. Francis Xavier at all. According to one account, it was a reclining statue of Jesus the Nazarene that was salvaged and transported to Wa:k from a mission station at Tumacácori during a series of Apache raids. In another account, it was a statue of Christ Entombed that floated away from Tumacácori during a flood and was discovered in the Santa Cruz riverbed near Wa:k. For historians, the symbolic transformation of the statue from Christ Jesus to St. Francis Xavier is a puzzle—we do not know precisely how it happened—but for the faithful, it is simply a reality of spirit, a knowledge that one saint is always a manifestation of the presence of the communion of saints, unified in the incarnate body of the risen Christ.

Hence, not surprisingly, when religious persecution in Mexico prevented the O’odham from traveling to Magdalena in the 1920s and 30s for the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the santo in Wa:k allowed for local celebration by becoming “San Francisco”—simultaneously Xavier and Assisi. To this day, on the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the people process with the statue of Francis Xavier. The Jesuit saint lays down his body for the Franciscan saint, and vice versa, just as Christ laid down his body for us all. That is the body that we share as our common icon. That is the truth of our common home.

 

While we watch pilgrims approach the santo, Mr. Lewis invites us and the conservation team out to the shaded patio for a rest. He tells us what it has been like to conserve the angels that haunted his childhood.

“We’re now more at peace with each other, I guess,” Mr. Lewis says to us.

“People look at art as art,” he goes on. “I always look at it as the people who did the paintings, not only our people, but the Spanish. You know, they went through a lot of suffering to do this, especially our people. When we do the restoration work, it’s in honor of them.”

Mr. Lewis and Ms. Rubio reflect in their marriage the fusion of O’odham and Spanish cultures that makes the mission unique.

In this way, Mr. Lewis and Ms. Rubio reflect in their marriage the fusion of O’odham and Spanish cultures that makes the mission unique. And as in any marriage, they are hoping to leave an inheritance. That is why they have begun to train Anthony Sweezy and Susie Moreno in the arts of conservation. The apprentices tell us about learning to restore the santos, how they use small amounts of water to ease paint back into place. In this desert, even the saints need water.

But they are not the only ones, as Mr. Sweezy knows from traveling around the mission. Often, he meets immigrants attempting to make the crossing.

“We’ve run into people that are very desperate and almost at the point of death,” he tells us. “So we try to give them as much water and food [as we can].”

We ask Ms. Rubio if she thinks the walls of this mission can change the conversation about immigration. She is not so sure.

“The people who suffer injustice come here to pray,” she says. “The people who make the laws, I don’t see them here.”

When we leave, we take I-10 east towards New Mexico through a landscape of massive boulders that will outlast us. A mile or two away from a Border Patrol checkpoint, we see a young man on the side of the road—perhaps not yet 20—burdened by nothing except an empty water jug that he is waving in the air. So close to the highway, so near a checkpoint, such an obvious gesture can mean only one thing: surrender. Struggling to cross in the summer’s most unrelenting heat, he has decided deportation holds a more promising fate.

Driving at 75 miles per hour, with our car full to capacity, we know we cannot change the laws in this instant. We know we cannot change the patterns of climate. We cannot make clouds to veil the sun. So we do what we can do; we pull over and give him water to drink. It is a necessary weight he will have to carry with him, at least until he arrives at the checkpoint and someone takes him where they think he should go.

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