On January 2011, I was one of the visitors who flocked to the Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the few Spanish colonial missions in the US still serving the native peoples it was built for. I was on Tertianship, the last stage in Jesuit formation. Together with my fellow priests, I was coming from the exposure to the work at the Kino Border Initiative at the border of Nogales, Mexico. (Check my experiences here, here, here, here, and here)
Ornate details of the frontage of the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Photo: Fr. JBoy Gonzales SJ
The KBI was a joint apostolate of the Jesuit Provinces of Mexico and California. It provided humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants deported from the Nogales, Arizona border. The KBI took its name from Fr. Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit missionary-explorer of Nueva España, the one who built the predecessor of this church.
One of the Baroque retablos at the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Photo: Fr. JBoy Gonzales SJ
Fr. Kino arrived at the Indian village of Bac in 1692. The people there seemed to be open to conversion, so he built a mission church that he named after St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who became the patron of the missions for his work in Asia.
In the late 1770s, the Franciscan missionaries took over when the Jesuits were suppressed. They began to build this present structure with a cruciform floor plan. They built it with a 7,000 silver peso budget borrowed from a local rancher. They invited artists from Querétaro, a town north of Mexico City who worked with Indian laborers to sculpt and paint this extraordinary Baroque interior.
The altar of the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Photo: Fr. Jboy Gonzales SJ, January 2011
I was awed at the interiors. With mouth agape, I took pictures in frenzy: wide-angled, close-up, or macros in portrait or landscapes. It was already stunning to be at the white exterior of a massive church at the center of an Indian reserve, but it was more intense to be inside of it.
I was more than impressed. But I felt that that was exactly the effect of Baroque architecture of the 17th and 18th century. The extravagance of ornate details seem to send the message to the Indians — and to all visitors of the present — how big and lofty Christianity was.
So, check these photos, and tell me if I have all the reasons to wonder.
1. Detail: St. Francis Xavier, Mission San Xavier del Bac. Photo: Fr. JBoy Gonzales SJ, January 2011
1. A 1759 statue of St. Francis Xavier at the center of the retablo (right photo).
2. St. Ignatius of Loyola at the altar of Mission San Xavier del Bac. Photo: Fr. Jboy Gonzales SJ, January 2011
2. St. Ignatius of Loyola (left photo).
3. This is the bier that held the statue of San Francisco who turned the mission into a place of pilgrimage (photo, below).
3. The Bier of St. Francis under the Christ in red robes. Photo: Fr. JBoy Gonzales SJ, January 2011
As one of the pilgrims who came to this place years ago, I also had more than a dozen petitions, except that I did not have what other pilgrims were leaving behind: a token of devotion, pinned on the robe of San Francisco Xavier.
Tokens of devotion are pinned on the robes of St. Francis. PHoto: Fr. JBoy Gonzales SJ, January 2011