A Spanish Mission
When visiting Tucson, Arizona, The San Xavier del Bac Mission is a major tourist attraction. Most people are unaware that only 82 km (51 miles) south on US-19, is another former Spanish church, the San Jose de Tumacacori. The Tumacacori Mission was one of twenty-one missions built in the Pimería Alta region, with the intent to strengthen the Spanish Empire or the Viceroyalty of Nueva España. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino the ‘Black robe on Horseback’, oversaw the missions, established trade routes, mapped out the area and brought western civilization and Christianity to the Pima, Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham Indians.
It was Father Keno who initiated the construction of the Tumacacori Mission in 1691, but on the east side of the Santa Cruz River, building churches at Guevavi and Calabazas. The word Tumacacori, from the Tohono O’odham Indian language, means ‘the place to gather wild chilis’ or ‘flat rock’. The present site of the Tumacacori church dates back to 1751 and is built along the west side of the Santa Cruz River. The Jesuits, followed by the Franciscans (or brown robes), built a model community with a population of two hundred people. The church, of course, was the cornerstone of the community and built with the labour of the Pima Indians. They also constructed canals
for irrigation, grew corn, fruit and raised cattle. In order to protect the Indians and settlers, in 1752 the Spanish built a military fort or Presidio at San Ignacio de Tubac, five km (three mi) to the north.
For numerous reasons, the church was abandoned from 1848 to 1908 when the Americans took control with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. During this sixty-year period, the church fell victim to vandalism, theft and neglect. Natural elements also took their toll, damaging the exterior of the church. In the 1920’s, renovations began by building a new roof and preserving what was left of the church, but the work has never been completed. Today the interior décor is rather bleak and drab, appearing much like an unfinished adobe building. Because of its historical significance, Tumacacori became a National Monument in 1908 and, in 1987, was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Scattered around the five-acre property are native brush houses, orchards, the rectory, bell-tower, granary, mortuary and cemetery, all in need of significant restoration work. On the other hand, the tour guides do an excellent job of describing how the Catholic mission functioned on a daily basis. At the entrance, there is a small museum, gift shop and a patio garden, containing the many local species of plants and cacti.
Following a visit to Tumacacori, stop for lunch at Tubac. This small town is known as ‘The Center for The Arts’ and has an abundance of art galleries, artisan workshops, gift shops and Mexican restaurants as well as the historical museum. Tubac and Tumacacori make for a nice day trip out of Tucson.