It’s amazingly beautiful.
To put things in perspective, you need to remember that Ontario’s first Catholic Mission (there were earlier ones in Acadia), Sainte Marie Among the Hurons, was founded in 1639 by the French Jesuit Fathers Lalemant and Brébeuf. We visited the site last summer: recreations of the buildings, simple church, European settlement with its perimeter of pointed tree trunks fashioned into fencing, and neighbouring Wendat/Huron village. The original mission buildings were made from cedar posts, with birch bark roofing and clay interior walls. It was all very plain. It also did not last; in 1649 during conflicts between the Wendat and Iroquois Nations, the 8 priests working in the mission were martyred and the mission itself burned.
In South America, we visited several churches established by Catholic Missions: the gorgeous Catedral San José in Antigua Guatemala built in 1680, Lima Peru’s Cathedral dating to 1622, the stunning Santa Catalina Monastery founded in 1580 in Arequipa Peru, and San Agustin church in Las Serenas Chile built in 1672. The difference between those gorgeous, ornate, icon-filled churches and the simple chapel at Sainte Marie is almost indescribable. Of course, the Spanish had been in South America since the 1490’s, and had had lots of time to overrun the original South American inhabitants and “convert” them to Catholicism. Additionally, building materials and methods were far different than what were available in Canada. Adobe clay bricks last much longer than wood, don’t burn easily (although they are susceptible to earthquake damage), and require much less manpower to create than cutting stone. Once the solid church exteriors were created, there was an abundance of exotic wood, and precious metals, with which to create awe-inspiring interior decorations. Many of the South American civilizations already used gold, silver, and jade in their own places of worship, so the ornate Spanish churches must have at least “made sense”. It’s hard to imagine that Canadian Indigenous peoples would have been equally impressed by gold leaf adorning brightly painted statues of the saints and the Madonna, but who knows?
Mission San Xavier Del Bac is just south of Tucson. Here is the area’s connection to Father Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit priest who founded the mission in 1692, and who was represented in many of local artist Ted DeGrazia’s paintings. Father Kino was sent to work with the people living in New Spain; first in Baja California and then in the Sonoran Desert: 16 different agricultural tribes with whom he shared European farming techniques as he converted them to Catholicism. He was involved in founding more than 20 other missions, but San Xavier is the largest. It seems that in many cases the natives sought him out, as opposed to him looking for them. Some of that might have had to do with his reputation for speaking against Spanish interests – opposing both slavery and native peoples’ working conditions in Spanish-run silver mines – and the fact that he brought along livestock as well as seeds for peaches, olives, drought-resistant Sonoran wheat to add to their traditional crops.
Interesting (to me) is Father Kino’s heritage. He is often referred to as either Italian or Spanish, but he was born in the Bishopric of Trent while it was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (it’s now Trentino, Italy), his father was a German nobleman named Franz Kühn (changed to Chini in Italian and Kino in Spanish), his mother was an Italian noblewoman named Margherita Luchi, he was educated in Austria, and he took his religious training in Bavaria. There are German connections in South America and the southern United States almost as far back as the Spanish ones.
San Xavier Del Bac did not originally have a large church. In fact, by the time Father Kino died in 1711, and even up to when the Jesuits were recalled to Spain in 1767, they were using a smaller adobe church, which was destroyed during an Apache attack in 1770. The current building, nicknamed The White Dove of the Desert by photographer Ansel Adams, and recognized as the oldest surviving European structure in Arizona, dates back only to 1783 when the Franciscans took over the mission. The interior is decorated with a mixture of Native American and New Spain artistic motifs. The church is still used by Tohono O’odham Nation (second in size only to the Navaho in the U.S.), the Wa:k community, and Yaqui tribal members.
The building is in a constant state of restoration, the timing of which takes place around regular masses, based on availability of specialty craftsmen and artisans, and of course money. That said, the interior has been largely magnificently restored, and the exterior holds evidence of its former glory.
On the exterior of the church you can see vestiges of red, blue, and gold paint over the doorway and on the statues.
The interior is in the Churrigueresque style, also called Ultra Baroque or “Mexican Baroque”, with ornate carving, trompe-l’oeil effects, gilding, brightly coloured decoration, sculptures, and symmetry. The three-dimensional tile effect on the lower walls is paint, as are all the surfaces that look like marble.
The main altar is decorated to look like the Franciscans’ image of heaven: God at the top centre, giving a blessing with his right hand and holding the earth with his left. Angels are at his side, with a shining gilded Mary a couple of levels lower. The figure in priestly vestments just above the altar and behind Jesus on the cross is Saint Xavier. saints Peter and Paul are in the two upper niches.
There are 147 different angels throughout the church, but these two were my favourites – they look ready to take off!
One of the newest additions to this active church is a wooden statue depicting Saint Kateri Tekekwitha, “The Lily of the Mohawks”, the very first Native American saint, canonized by Pope Benedict in 2012. Fitting since this church is in a Native American community.
Having seen this mission, I’m excited to visit the San Antonio Missions next month. Your “mission”, should you choose to accept it, is to follow along with us!