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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Would you like to visit San Xavier?