Nine miles south of downtown Tucson, the Mission Church of San Xavier del Bac is a monument to the history of Christian ministry with the Tohono O’odham people who long before Spanish occupation had established a flourishing society is this land of little rain. The mission was established by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692.
He laid the foundations for a church building that was never erected. Construction of the church that now is resplendent in the Arizona sun began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. According to the historical account posted at the church’s website, this church is “the oldest intact European structure in Arizona” and its interior “is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th century space.”
The website gives more detail about the art and architecture of this historic building. In times past, the church has suffered damage from an earthquake and a lightning strike. Funding for a major restoration is currently underway.
Unlike many ancient ecclesiastical structures, San Xavier del Bac continues to be an active church, with a special mission to serve the Tohono O’odham people on whose land it stands. Although I have previously visited it as a tourist, I stayed in Tucson an extra day following my bicycle tour of historic hotels of southern Arizona in order to attend Mass (the Saturday Vigil) at this glorious house of worship.
When I drove to the church, the western sky was dominated by flat clouds with brilliant colors of orange and burgundy caused by the setting sun. An open plaza is maintained in from of the church, with unpaved parking facilities on either side. The walk from one’s car becomes part of the experience because worshipers are brought around to a place where they face the front façade directly and see both the beauty of the gleaming white structure and the warmth of the brown, modestly sized front entrance.
I followed two small sets of worshipers, a duo of white women in their early 70s and a young family with dark skin tones whose two pre-school children were among the small number of children present for Mass. Just inside the open doors parish bulletins were held down by rocks about six inches long to keep them from blowing away in the sharp evening breeze. After picking up a bulletin, many of the worshipers reached over the narrow table for a large print missal and hymnbook. There were no greeters, and people went immediately to find seats.
The nave is long and narrow, with about 20 rows of benches with low backs. Close to the wall on each side there is a bench that seats two people; then a narrow aisle; and down the middle a bench that seats 4 to 6 adults. At 5:20 when I entered the church, the first 9 rows were already filled, and during the next 10 minutes the additional rows and transept seating were also occupied. My estimate is that approximately 165 worshipers were present—mostly in their 60s and beyond, mostly with light skin tones, mostly dressed in ordinary weekend attire.
At 5:25 the slight murmur of conversation went silent. The woman who served as cantor took her place at the edge of the space where a simple altar-table was set with the vessels that would be used during the Mass. With clear voice and articulate instructions she announced the entrance hymn. Congregants stood for the singing and the presiding priest with two teenaged boys processed up the aisle on the left.
In contrast with the cantor, the priest and others who had speaking parts in the liturgy (a religious woman, a lay man, and a lay woman) spoke in muffled tones so that it was hard to understand what they were saying. The five-minute homily drew upon the Genesis account of the sacrifice of Isaac and the epistle text from Romans 8, giving a conventional interpretation.
The Mass was straight out of the book and could have been celebrated in any ordinary Catholic Church anywhere in the country. Everything was done “decently and in order,” to use Paul’s phrase from 1 Corinthians.
During the closing hymn, congregants began their exit so that by its close only a third of us remained in place. From beginning to end, the liturgy took 50 minutes.
The insufficiencies of some of the leaders of the service, however, were marginalized by three other factors. First, the piety of worshipers and their ability to enter into the language and action of the liturgy; second, the theological coherence of the Mass and its prescribed rituals; and third, the aesthetic spirituality of the worship room itself. I left the Mass with a strong sense of the beauty of holiness.