Wednesday July 7, 1999
The same day we saw the San Xaviar Del Bac Mission, south of Tucson, I glanced at a Smithsonian article—Tom’s mom’s a librarian—explaining why England’s littered with the wrecks of cathedrals. Henry VIII did it, after breaking with the Catholic church. He was marking his ground. For the same reason, San Xaviar could now be a mess of chunked clay—it was owned successively by the warring Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans. And it was built by Jesuits, soon replaced by Franciscans, then also banished.
But it survived, and is presently being restored, reportedly a constant project. ‘Cause not only do the six-foot thick adobe walls have to endure Arizona’s unrelenting summers (it was nearly one-hundred this afternoon) winters get just as nasty—water drips into the rafters, freezes, then destroys them. Preservation’s being done by the same team who saved the Sistine Chapel. Their aim’s to restore, not embellish, though an orientation video clearly shows paint being added to bald spots, decorative detail being created new. Still, when you look at the place, it doesn’t matter.
The walls were chipping and muted. Now, though the colors are brighter than you’d expect in a church—and stronger than California’s J. Crew missions—they’re not as garish as Michaelangelo’s former ceiling in all its controversy. And the reviews in the video are only positive (though who’d quote bad press?) Work might go faster if there were more money. (Since the mission’s church property, it can’t get federal grants). And that might not matter. The place is so hot most of the time, artists can only climb thirty-foot scaffolds three winter months each year.
The Mission isn’t air-conditioned, and no one mentions if it could be—again, maybe the problem’s money. The basement museum isn’t air-conditioned, either, and contrary to opinion, the thick adobe walls do little to drop the temperature. Only the small gift shop is air-conditioned. Maybe to encourage tourists to linger and buy.
There are legends about the place: Polka dots decorating some columns are reportedly thumbprints of the original artists. The mystery of the unfinished tower. The cat and mouse on the facade. Hidden gold.
The dots might just be easy decoration—other art’s a mix of Spanish and Mexican, some statues imported from nineteenth-century Europe, others native-made. The cat and mouse are probably whimsey, secret Jesuit in-jokes like Masonic handshakes. No doubt the tower was unfinished due to politics—there’s a surprise. And the story of Hidden Gold’s undercut by historic inventories proving the old mission’s contents wouldn’t fund a garage sale.
But there’s something bigger that stops constant renovation—this is still a church, and a working Catholic church in a heavily-poor, Hispanic and Native American community. People here are largely uneducated, their willingness to believe evident by an effigy of St. Francis Xaviar. Photos and messages are pinned to his robe. Prayers beg, at least, for attention. Sometimes, miracles.
There are also martyred saints in four-dozen niches, not the bunch noted simply for good works. Christ sets the tone, not hanging serene and central, as usual. But impaled on a side wall, life-sized, skinny, near-naked, and bleeding. How do you get past that pain to admire a paint job?
I retreated to the museum, sparten, and still detailing resurrection not renovation. Another endlessly-looping video chronicles one of the Native American apprentices, formerly an aimless alcoholic, who found God, salvation, focus, and even love through his work—he married a fellow restorer (well, not a fellow).
I felt like an intruder, yet other people seem to distance their emotions—the mission’s a photographic icon, published everywhere, its fourteen acres the second-most documented site in Arizona, just behind the far larger Grand Canyon. Tom and I saw no sign of the pros, though even on this hottest day, amateurs were everywhere. The others seem to favor slightly past dawn, or just before sunset.