Anniversary of Mission’s Federal Protection Recalls Park Service Start

If not for the beginning effort by the federal government to protect this mission south of Tucson, there might never have been the nationwide system of parks and monuments that exists today.

Tumacácori, Arizona

On Sept. 15, Arizona’s congressmen, National Park Service officials and local and national dignitaries will gather at the historic church of San José de Tumacácori, south of Tucson.

They will be coming together to celebrate a century of federal protection for the mission and related sites along Arizona’s border with Mexico. At the ceremony, they will cut the ribbon on a new interpretive center, dedicated to explaining the site’s historic importance to future generations.

The officials will also be recalling the national significance of the 1908 decision to protect the ruin and how it helped set the stage for the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. If not for the beginning effort by the federal government at Tumacácori, there might never have been the nationwide system of parks and monuments that exists today.

Implicitly, the delegation will also be celebrating the significance of an earlier effort. The mission President Theodore Roosevelt sought to preserve in 1908 existed because of the work of missionaries who arrived two centuries before from Spain, and the work of the Indians they evangelized.

It is what made its preservation a national priority in 1908 and continues to make the preservation effort an even greater priority today, said Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. “It’s something we see all around us, everywhere in southern Arizona,” he said, especially at Tumacácori. “Faith has been crucial in defining the region’s history and culture and continues to be deeply ingrained in the values of the communities that exist today.”

Bishop Kicanas said that fact is nowhere more obvious than during the annual celebration at San José de Tumacácori, one of two surviving mission churches, established to bring the faith to the Indians of southern Arizona.

The Tumacácori National Historic Park protects the Tumacácori mission grounds, as well as the Calabazas mission ranch and ruins of the San Gabriel de Guevavi mission.

Missionary Beginnings

Less fortunate and therefore less famous than its grander neighbor, the legendary San Xavier del Bac, the mission at Tumacácori still draws the faithful to its ruined walls each year. There they celebrate Mass again, just as their ancestors have done since Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino taught them to pray more than 300 years ago.

“It’s a very moving experience to be there,” Bishop Kicanas said. “To celebrate the liturgy in front of the remnants of these buildings put together through the hard work of Native Americans and missionaries,” and to witness the traditional dances that follow Mass at the festival, “is to witness these deep roots of faith and culture.

“It’s an expression of an ongoing engagement of religious and civic development,” he said. Working together, rather than apart, “the symbiosis frames the present and guides the future of the region and its people.”

The mission of San José de Tumacácori and the rest of the national historic park began with the 1687 arrival of Padre Kino and his mounted escort at the villages of the Pimeria Alta, north of the missionary’s headquarters at Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (a ruin that still exists, approximately 55 miles to the south in modern-day Sonora, Mexico).

Sought out by the northern Sobaipuris bands of the Tohono O’odham, who had heard of the missionaries and their unselfish work to improve the lives of the Indians, Father Kino established missions to serve the major native communities of the region at Guevavi, near modern-day Nogales, and Tumacácori, south of modern-day Tubac. Farther to the north, Father Kino would later establish an even larger mission named for St. Francis Xavier at the Pima village of Bac. He finished the expansion of his Santa Cruz territory with a final mission at the Sobaipuris village of Tucson; it was named for the adjacent “black mountain,” now called Sentinel Peak.

The missions were handed over to Franciscans after Spain’s 1767 expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries. They continued to expand, despite repeated plagues that decimated a native population unable to cope with European diseases. Supported by large herds of cattle and sheep, as well as chickens and ducks, the missions undertook major construction projects.

At San Xavier del Bac, Friar Juan Bautista de Velderrain started first, selling off the mission herds in 1783 to pay for construction of the landmark church, now called the White Dove of the Desert. He would not live to witness the project’s completion in 1797. Father de Velderrain died of typhoid in 1790.

In 1801, Friar Narciso Gutiérrez decided to do the same. Unfortunately, growing herds and a declining immigrant population, due to increasing Apache raids, meant falling prices, and this curtailed his effort.

‘As It Was’

Work on the mission church and surrounding complex would continue, as funding permitted, for 27 years — but would never be completed. Construction halted with the expulsion of Father Gutiérrez and other Franciscan missionaries by the new Mexican government.

Life and worship at the mission itself would continue until 1848, when Apache raids finally made occupation of the Tubac-Tumacácori area impossible. But that wouldn’t be the end of the story, according to Franciscan Father Stephen Bernardski, pastor of San Xavier del Bac.

Although he spends his time meeting the demands of his sprawling parish, which serves the 11 districts of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Father Bernardski said he recognizes that the historical ties to the Tumacácori mission continue. “The National Park Service runs the Tumacácori property as they see fit, but I have no problem with how they do it.”

The religious and cultural significance is preserved at the site. “Both secular and Catholic culture have taken on pieces of each other to create a culture unique to this area,” he said.

The Park Service personnel understand that and continue to respect it. Park Service historian Dan Garate said it’s essential to what they’re called on to accomplish. “We walk a fine line between church and state, but we see this as not just religious history,” he said.

With the exception of a roof, placed on the Tumacácori church to protect it from further deterioration, everything is maintained as it existed in 1908, Garate said. “We want people to experience it as it was, rather than offer a restored version. Everything you see was done by the original hands that built the church.”

Tumacácori is part of the history of Spain in America, he said. “It’s also the history of the Tohono O’odham and Apaches, too. This is all part of everyone’s history. So, it’s our mission to preserve and protect it for everyone.”

Philip Moore writes

from Vail, Arizona.

Church of San José de Tumacácori

1891 East Frontage Rd.

Tumacácori, AZ 85640

Planning Your Visit

The site is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, when the park is closed. Visits to the ruins at Calabazas and San Gabriel de Guevavi must be scheduled in advance.

La Fiesta de Tumacácori will be held Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6-7, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Events include a historical reenactment high Mass.