Mission San Xavier del Bac

White Dove of the Desert

White Dove of the Desert © 2012 Bo Mackison

I photographed the Mission San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’odham Reservation this morning. Seen from Interstate 19 heading south out of Tucson, the church is a bright gleaming dome in a desert setting. It is easy to see how the church came by its name, “The White Dove of the Desert.”

White Dove of the Desert - Entrance

Entrance to White Dove of the Desert © 2012 Bo Mackison

The mission itself was founded by Father Eusebio Kino, a Franciscan missionary, in 1692, but this building was built in the late 1700s and not completed for use until 1797. Father Kino also founded the mission at Tumacacori, located 20 miles south of San Xavier, and several other missions in southern Arizona and in Sonora, Mexico.

The church, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings and is also a National Historic Landmark, is the oldest European-inspired structure in the state of Arizona.

Mission of St Xavier del Bac - Interior

Interior of White Dove of the Desert Mission © 2012 Bo Mackison

San Xavier del Bac’s interior is filled with over 70 original, restored carved statues and over 200 mural paintings, all dating from the late 1700s. The church has many folk art features, using the materials that were available to the artisans and their assistants.

They took advantage of the mountains and the nearby stone to build the church, used mesquite for the main doors, and utilized some of the desert elements to make some of the paints and other decorative features. They painted faux doors, made wooden decorative pieces and painted them to resemble marble, and fashioned many niches to hold carved and painted statues in “curtain” surrounds.

Mission of St Xavier del Bac - Sanctuary and Crossing

Mission of St Xavier del Bac - Sanctuary © 2012 Bo Mackison

Many of the statues are decorated with silver and gold accents, and other materials such as glass eyes for the statues, were brought to the mission by the Missionary Fathers from Europe via Mexico.  It is all quite intricate and full of ingenious detailing.

Mission of St Xavier del Bac - Sanctuary

Sanctuary, Altar, and Two Guarding Lions © 2012 Bo Mackison

I studied the interior of the church in amazement — the decorative features cover nearly almost every surface. There are identical gold lions in the sanctuary flanking the altar and intricate murals on the walls. A baptismal font is painted to look like marble. There are geometric designs on the lower church walls in bright primary colors. Murals of cherabim in red checked robes are painted on the church’s ceiling and choir loft.

Mission of St Xavier del Bac - East Transept

East Transept of St Xavier del Bac Mission © 2012 Bo Mackison

There are two transepts — west and east — that are filled with niches and statues of saints, all surrounded by sculptured wood that mimics columns, cornices, pedestals and more.

The church underwent an extensive restoration projects during most of the 1990s and some of the nations’ most talented art conservators including conservators from the Guggenheim in New York City and others brought from all over the world to give new life to this remarkable art.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. Gandalf says:

    That is a beautiful building and wonderful pictures. I’d love to visit it sometime.

  2. Terrific series, Bo! You captured it very well!

  3. Susan Vial says:

    This is truly a hidden gem in Arizona – great pictures.

  4. glad i don’t have to dust it.

  5. I’ve visited there before, Bo. Your photos capture it perfectly. That last photo? The angel on the left, on the wall? Used an image of that on a Christmas card one year. Good to see it again! XO

  6. I see this church all the time and never get tired of its beauty. I love your pictures but there’s more beautiful things in the church besides that.

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