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Posted by on Jun 27, 2016 | 87 comments

San Xavier: White Dove of the Desert

Tears kept falling through my cheeks. I wasn’t overly happy or sad.

Instead, a bone-chilling wind was drying my eyes.  My body was fighting the situation by producing tears at the speed of light.

The previous evening, I was having a conversation over the phone with my grandfather.

“I am in Arizona grandpa,” I told him.

“What are you doing on that hot as hell, full of snakes place?” he replied with a surprised tone.  Ah, misconceptions!

“Actually, it is less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I am freezing to death in here.”

Yes, I have an innate talent to visit Arizona during the coldest days recorded in recent history.  It doesn’t feel good when a local tells you, “It hasn’t been this cold in 10 years.”

On top of that, I had the brilliant idea of visiting a church, located in the middle of nowhere, at the crack of dawn.  That was when my eyes decided it was too much for them.

But, let me backtrack a little bit.

A visit to Tucson is not complete without a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission.  This church was founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino (he is to Arizona, Baja and Sonora what Junipero Serra is to California).

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

In 1700, construction began on a church at a site nearby the current location. It served the community (Tohono O’odham) until razed by Apaches in 1770.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

Today’s Mission was built between 1783 – 1797, after the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish lands in the Americas (Franciscans were given control). It is the oldest European building in Arizona and it is known as the “White Dove of the Desert.”

Many architectural experts consider San Xavier the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the United States.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

My two and a half days in Tucson were jam packed with activities.  Since the mission is located 10 miles from the city center, I knew my only chance to see it was by waking up early and hitting the site before breakfast.

When I spotted the Mission from the freeway, I understood why it is compared to a white dove.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

Trembling limbs and crying eyes aside, we had the entire place to ourselves when the morning light was intensifying the earthly tones of the mission’s façade.  The lack of surrounding structures afforded us a serene silence.

San Xavier has a stucco Moorish-inspired exterior.  The detail carvings transport you to faraway lands.

The doors are made of mesquite wood and the interior has paintings, carvings, frescoes and statues.  The builders were able to create a structure that remains cool while the surroundings are blazing hot.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

The floor plan of the church resembles the classic Latin cross, with a main aisle separated from the sanctuary by the transept, which has chapels at either end.

When the Mission was restored in the 1980s, cement-based stucco was used in certain areas.  This proved to be an error since the material traps water.  Several internal decorations were damaged as a result.  That material has been replaced with mud plaster (a traditional material) and, surprisingly, prickly pear cactus pulp. These materials allow excess water to escape.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona


San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

The dome above the transept is 52 feet (16 m) high, supported by arches and squinches. It can be appreciated by taking a look at the Mission form the side.


We ended up being on-site about 45 minutes. After that, we cranked the car’s heater for our return to Tucson.

I got a glimpse of the Mission once again when we were traveling south a couple of days later.  I am glad we took the time to learn about the history of this beautiful place.

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona

Would you like to visit San Xavier?


This post is part of Monday Escapes at My Travel Monkey, Travel Tuesday at Bumble Bee MumOur World Tuesday, Wanderful Wednesday at Lauren on Location, Wordless Wednesday at Image-in-ing, Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox , Photo Friday at Pierced Wonderings,  Weekend Travel Inspiration at Reflections Enroute, The Weekly Postcard at Travel Notes and Beyond  and Weekend Wanderlust at A Brit and a Southerner. Pay a visit to these wonderful blogs!

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  1. Thank you for making me aware this place/mission existed. I love the California Missions and I hope to visit this when I find myself in Phoenix.
    Photo cache recently posted..People of/in LisbonMy Profile

    • The Mission is actually in Tucson which is about a 100 miles form Phoenix. The entire area is worth a visit. There are lots to see and do.

  2. I love that golden stone! Lovely.

    • And it looks even more golden in the morning light. I loved the time we decided to visit.

  3. It makes such a difference to take the pictures at the right time of the day. Well-done, Ruth! I love your writing style with the dialogue as introduction.

    • Thank you very much. I think a lot about how to start my post. I like to give readers an idea of what I was experiencing when I visit places.

    • Thanks! I love to see photos, so, what a better way to share the way than thru them.

  4. I love old homes and churches. This is a beautiful place which I wish I could visit. Great shots.

    • Carol, seems like we have similar tastes. Old towns and historical buildings are some of my favorite subjects.

  5. I almost didn’t even want to go inside, Ruth. It’s too perfect just to gaze at. 🙂

    • You are right! You can feel happy just by looking at the outside.

    • Gracias Raquel! Lugares como estos son hermosos pero la historia detras de ellos es lo que los hace memorables.

  6. Beautiful place, beautiful light and beautiful photos!

    • Thanks! Arizona can definitely get cold.

    • Right! The facade has some earthy tones that are accentuated by the warm. golden light.

  7. We’re going to Sedona, AZ tomorrow. I have a feeling we’ll be cooking the books. Not fighting wind chill. But I can’t wait. The stucco mission photos are so striking against the deep blue sky.

    • Hope you have a great time in Sedona! That area is a bit high, so, I hope it is not that hot when you visit.

  8. Well, when I first saw the picture you linked up, I thought, “that looks like Spain” and then I read the beginning and though Arizona?!? Now after reading, it all makes sense! This church definitely looks worth a visit and has such an interesting history! Thanks for sharing as I had no idea it existed. On my next trip to Arizona I’ll be sure to check it out! 😀
    Lauren recently posted..Exploring Beer City USA with Asheville Brewery ToursMy Profile

    • That is totally true! This Mission can pass for the church of any small town in Southern Spain.

    • Becky, seems like you are like my husband. He loves cold weather and he felt super good in the 40 degree days. I bet the cold will find me the next time we visit Arizona.

  9. Beautiful photos with the blue skies in the background! Enjoyed reading your post and added it to the list of places I must visit when I travel to Arizona. #WanderfulWednesday

    • Thanks a lot! The days were cold but have go to admit that the light and skies were gorgeous during our visit.

  10. I’d wake up early to see the White Dove – it’s absolutely beautiful! Thanks for making the trip and taking us along, Ruth.
    I didn’t realize it got so cold in Arizona but it make sense – the sun takes its warmth when it sets.
    Marcia recently posted..The Oculus, NYC’s 3rd Largest Transportation HubMy Profile

    • Marcia, I am going to talk more about Arizona’s weather in another post since we even found snow during the trip. That is a crazy thing!

    • It is true. I think the photos will look totally different under a different light.

    • I was surprised by the colors of the cacti. I have never seen those colors before.

  11. I have visited this church! Many years ago when we visited my sister-in-law and family when our children we young. We spent a couple of weeks in AZ visiting all the sights, including the Grand Canyon. We took a trip down to Tuscon one day and visited this magnificent church and the Saguaro National Park. I never knew it got so cold in AZ as it did your visit, Ruth!
    Patricia recently posted..Fire Island National Seashore and LighthouseMy Profile

    • I am glad you have enjoyed the beauty of Arizona. I still have to visit tons of places on the state. I am looking forward to other trips in the future.

    • Glad you liked them! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Beautiful photos as the light of dawn hits the church. Yes, I have frozen in “hot-as-hell” Arizona too! Haha.

    • There are jokes of people freezing in Arizona when it is 70 degrees. Well, this cold was no joke. Then, I go totally unprepared because I think it is going to be like California.

  13. I love the golden light on the church in these photos. You have captured the light perfectly. It looks like an interesting place to visit, but I’m not sure about the freezing temperature in the Arizona Desert. I visited the Grand Canyon once and it was also absolutely freezing cold!
    Kathy Marris recently posted..In My Backyard: Marooned on Moreton IslandMy Profile

    • People say winter is the perfect season to visit the desert but I think spring or fall will work better. I ended up wearing like three sweaters.

    • I am glad I braved the cold too! I also like the Southwestern Mission and the mission architectural style. This weekend I stop by two small asistencias I have never visited before.

  14. You caught some beautiful images, Ruth. I love the hues that come out during the morning golden hour but rarely drag myself out of bed early enough to see them.

    I’ve never been to Phoenix and knew little other than it has some beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and missions. Needless to say this is the first I’ve heard of San Xavier. Thanks for sharing it in such a vibrant way. I felt like I was freezing right there with you. recently posted..Exploring El Camino Real de PanamaMy Profile

    • The Mission is close to Tucson not Phoenix. Tucson is about a 100 miles from Phoenix close to the Mexican border.

  15. How funny that we both wrote about missions this week, Ruth. San Xavier del Bac Mission looks very interesting and I had no idea about it. Next time I go to Phoenix I’l make sure to drive to Tucson as well. This mission is definitely worth visiting from what I read from your post.

    • I know, that is a neat coincidence. I have never visited the mission you wrote about. Next time I am in the area I may try to stop by!

  16. Ruth, I love your photos! Blue sky, white clouds, the yellowish reflection from the sun. Looks like you had a great time there!

  17. Ruth, I love your photos! Blue sky, white clouds, the yellowish reflection from the sun. Looks like you had a great time there!

    • It is a very nice place! I am glad I visited.

  18. Loved this post, especially the introduction! I don’t know much about Arizona beyond it being dry and hot (and even then, not always, apparently). That mission looks truly beautiful! Catching it during the magical hour of sunrise or sunset makes so much difference, but I bet it would be still breathtaking at other times of the day. Thanks for sharing, Ruth.
    Michelle | michwanderlust recently posted..Gran Canaria: Into the MountainsMy Profile

    • Arizona has different climates. The desert is hot but it can be chilly at night. There are several parts of Arizona which are high. The weather is cool in those areas too. I also froze in Prescott one time.

  19. Gorgeous photos, the colours are just lovely! 🙂 I love how you described everything too as I really felt like I was there with you!

    • Great to know I gave you that feeling!

  20. What an amazing blue sky – it certainly sounds worth freezing briefly for this piece of history and some stunning photos. I’ve only been in Arizona when it has been hot but I guess when the temperature drops there, it really drops. #theweeklypostcard
    Cathy (MummyTravels) recently posted..Take 12 Trips: halfway through 2016My Profile

    • It is kind of funny but I have never experienced Arizona’s heat. Like I said, I am a magnet for cold weather (in the desert!).

  21. The older I get the more I question the idea of Missions in general — all that money going into decoration of a church when people were hungry — but it was another time. And we too loved visiting the White Dove when we spent the winter in Tucson — it is a beautiful example of mission architecture with a fascinating history. Tucson can definitely get cool. It’s high desert!
    Sallie (FullTime-Life) recently posted..ROCKY MOUNTAINS and BIGHORN SHEEPMy Profile

    • I get what you are saying but some Missions in the Americas are very humble when compared to European churches and cathedrals. Sometimes, rich ranchers financed them. The other thing is that some Missions were industrial centers. They produced every thing to sustain the local community.

  22. I think heading to the church early in the morning allowed you to get some lovely shots of the building with the sun still rising – very pretty.
    Interesting to learn that the traditional mortar is better suited than modern products. Just goes to show they knew what they were doing back then and newer isn’t necessarily better.
    Sally-Ann Brown recently posted..How to do Sydney on the CheapMy Profile

    • Sally, like you mentioned, it seems like people from a 100 years ago had a better idea of what construction materials worked better in that type of weather. A little bit funny that modern constructors had to go back to old methods.

    • Ja, ha, I should have taken a selfie!

    • Maybe it was better to see the Mission in the cold weather. I can live with cold weather but my husband cannot stand heat.

  23. Beautiful shots here Ruth, I love the architecture here and the beautiful mix of oranges and whites against the blue sky. Just gorgeous! I must visit this place someday! – Tasha

    • Thanks Tasha! Glad you liked the pictures!

  24. Ruth, I would love to photograph San Xavier. We’re heading to Tucson in about a month. Can’t wait.
    Corinne recently posted..Travel as EducationMy Profile

    • Great Corinne! The time is coming. I am sure you are going to have so much fun.

  25. Beautiful pictures of the mission.

  26. Well, I’ve been visiting Tucson all my life and I’ve never heard of this. Great tip! I will definitely add it to my list for my next visit 🙂
    Isabel recently posted..Slovenia Summer Bucket List 2016My Profile

    • Well, at least, you learned something new reading this post!

    • It is the first time I hear about that technique. It would be interesting to find out who came up with that idea.

  27. The mission looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing! #weekendwanderlust

    • Thanks for stopping by!

    • Well, you can go wrong with Northern Arizona. It is a great area to visit. The South is different but worth visiting.

  28. What a weird and wonderful sight! It’s quite interesting to find Spanish architecture in the US and I love how you’ve captured it in these beautiful photos.
    Lauren recently posted..Haitian Food in Toronto: La CreoleMy Profile

    • Here in California we have Spanish Colonial and Spanish Revival architectural styles. I think I will never get tired of admiring buildings who follow those concepts.

    • Funny since it is the first I cry (involuntarily) in the cold. Not sure what was going on that day.

    • Great you liked it!


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