San Xavier del Bac Mission
A National Historic Landmark and popular tourist destination, San Xavier del Bac Mission is located in the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, just south of Tucson, Arizona. Known as “the White Dove of the Desert,” San Xavier was originally founded as a Catholic mission by Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, SJ, in 1692. Franciscan friars assumed leadership at the mission in 1768, and construction of the present-day church began in 1783. It was completed some 14 years later, in 1797.
The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church's interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can step back in time and enter an authentic 18th century space. The church also retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious needs of its Native American parishioners. Staffed by Franciscan friars of the St. Barbara Province, the mission continues to operate as an active Catholic parish, offering Mass and other worship services, faith formation and sacramental preparation, and a broad range of parish-related programs and ministries. The Franciscan friars work in collaboration with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity to meet various needs within the greater community as well. San Xavier Mission’s K-8 Catholic school educates local children, making a substantial, positive difference in their lives.
The Tohono O'odham Nation includes more than 24,000 people. The O’odham live on four separate land bases totaling more the 2.8 million acres (or 4,450 square miles). The land bases are comprised of the main reservation, the San Xavier District, the San Lucy District and the Florence Village. The main reservation — which is also served by the Franciscan friars — is located in south-central Arizona. The town of Sells serves as the Nation's capital.
For years, many have known the people as Papago, but during the 1980s, Papago was officially changed to the Tohono O'odham, meaning “desert people” in the O'odham language. Many of the O'odham are Catholics, yet are very aware of their "himdage," or O’odham “way of life." Traditions and beliefs of the O'odham elders continue to be handed down from one generation to another, and the O'odham language is thriving.
Today, many O'odham work for the Tohono O'odham Nation or federal government. Others are ranchers, and many who live close to the nation's boundaries work in the metropolitan cities of Tucson, Phoenix and Casa Grande. The O'odham are well known for basket weaving, which has received recognition as an art form.