Arizona's Spanish mission legacy - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Arizona's Spanish mission legacy

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Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007 1:24 am | Updated: 7:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

California isn’t the only state with Spanish missions to explore.

VIDEO: Watch a profile of the historic San Xavier del Bac mission

VIDEO: Watch a profile of the historic San José de Tumacácori mission

The colonials made their way through southern Arizona at least 80 years before setting the first adobe brick in California; along the way they conquered lands, converted souls and created icons to architecture.

“While the missions in California are great to look at, it seems like here (the legacy of mission culture) is more incorporated into daily life,” says Vanessa Bechtol, program manager for the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance.

Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, San José de Tumacácori and San Xavier del Bac are missions whose legacies are etched into Arizona history. Drive south along Interstate 19 and you’ll find that although the colonials and the conquistadores are long gone, their legacy reaches beyond their walls.

San Xavier del Bac

Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is still a working church addressing the spiritual needs of nearby parishioners.

Completed in 1797, San Xavier is considered the premier example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States, with Moorish, Byzantine and baroque influences. The church was constructed in the shape of a Latin cross, only a few centimeters shy of being perfectly symmetrical.

While the faithful pray inside, tourists take pictures with cell phones and digital cameras. One couple clicks away as a young mother lifts her young son up to the cistern for a dab of holy water.

“It is a place even for people who aren’t Catholic,” says Stephen Barnufsky, the parish priest. “Even though it’s noisy, they seem to find an oasis of peace.”

Details: 1950 W. San Xavier Road, Tucson (Exit 92 and Interstate 19). Free. Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. San Xavier del Bac is a working church, so be respectful of Masses, weddings and funerals. (520) 294-2624 or

San José de Tumacácori

Visitors to Tumacácori National Historical Park get a history lesson.

“(Here) you feel all the history, the sadness and the difficulty of the time,” says Roy Simpson, an interpreter and park ranger. The park, which celebrates its centennial in 2008, oversees three missions: San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi and San Cayetano de Calabazas (Guevavi and Calabazas are ruins and open only during ranger-led tours).

San José de Tumacácori was the first mission founded by Father Kino, in 1691.

The Jesuits who ran the mission not only tended to the souls of nearby villagers, but also raised livestock and crops. The mission was more of a community than a simple church.

Even today, every weekend tortilla makers — most likely descendants of the villagers who were alive to see San José de Tumacácori built — sell their homemade wares in the courtyard. (“You can’t buy them anywhere as good as that,” says Simpson.)

“This history isn’t dead,” says Simpson. “We live in an area that is American and Mexican, and this is their heritage.”

Details: Exit 29 and Interstate 19. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $3 per person. Reservations are required for tours of Guevavi and Calabazas. (520) 398-2341 or

Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi

When a mission was built by the Spanish, cattle and other livestock were never far behind.

Guevavi Ranch, the state’s oldest cattle ranch (established by Juan Bautista de Anza in the 1700s) is now a boutique bed-and-breakfast rechristened Hacienda Corona de Guevavi.

“The people who like history, they want to come here,” says owner Wendy Stover.

Hacienda Corona de Guevavi is within walking distance of the Guevavi Mission ruins. Sometimes Stover will take interested guests on a hike to see the ruins (all that remain of this exposed and isolated church are two adobe walls). The ruins are surrounded by barbed wire and under the surveillance of border patrol cameras perched atop a hill to the south.

“I call that 'Spy Mountain,’ ” Stover says.

The bed-and-breakfast features five guest rooms decorated in Spanish, Mexican and Western American styles. Murals painted by Mexican artist Salvador Corona adorn the walls of the interior courtyard.

“I decided to dedicate this house to Corona because of the murals,” Stover says.

Details: Hacienda Corona de Guevavi, 348 S. River Road, Nogales. Rates start at $195 per night. (888) 287-6502 or

(photos by Tim Hacker, Tribune)

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