Phoenix, Arizona, US

A little black sign greets visitors as they walk into the San Xavier del Bac Mission south of Tucson.

“Welcome to this house of worship. Please speak quietly, so as not to disturb those in prayer, God bless you.” 

This is what the San Xavier del Bac church was always meant to be: A place of prayer. One of refuge. A place for the Tohono O’odham people to come together and worship, said Father William Minkel, known as Father Bill to his congregation and pastor of the mission since 2019. 

The church doesn’t always feel this way for the people of Wa:k Village, however. 

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The San Xavier del Bac Mission, located south of Tucson. PICTURE: JR P (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the years have gone by, the church has filled up with more visitors than community members. 

“It’s increasingly become a place for tourists as they’re more able to retire and visit,” Minkel said. “And it’s been evolving. My concern is that it doesn’t happen at the expense of people of faith and the Tohono O’odham community. Sometimes people here feel like it’s not their church anymore.”

“It’s increasingly become a place for tourists as they’re more able to retire and visit. And it’s been evolving. My concern is that it doesn’t happen at the expense of people of faith and the Tohono O’odham community. Sometimes people here feel like it’s not their church anymore.”

- Father William Minkel.

San Xavier del Bac’s history goes back centuries. In 1692, Italian missionary Father Eusebio Kino visited the southern Arizona village of Wa:k - the “village of water” - for the first time. With 800 people living there, it was one of the largest villages of the Tohono O’odham people. 

Kino established a mission and named it San Francisco Xavier del Wa:k in honour of St Francis Xavier, his patron saint. He planned to make it the cabecera, or the hub, for all the other missions in the region, said Father Greg Adolf, a local historian and the priest of St Andrew the Apostle Parish in Sierra Vista.

Kino laid the foundation for a large church in 1700. He dug ditches and placed stones as the base for sun-dried adobe blocks. But he did not live to fulfill his dream. After his death in 1711, other missionaries resided for brief periods at the location.

It was the villagers who upheld the mission - who acted as faithful custodians of the several churches on the site and caretakers of the vessels and ornaments - during long periods without a resident missionary, Minkel said. 

“The reason it still stands is an outgrowth of the faith of the people,” he said. 

In 1783, the construction of the present church of adobe and plaster began under the leadership of Fray Juan Bautista Velderrain. Native workers from Mexico and Franciscan missionaries worked together to complete the mission. After 14 years, the “White Dove of the Desert” was finished in 1797. 

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Some of the decoration inside San Xavier del Bac Mission Church. PICTURE: JeffRz (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

San Xavier del Bac is one of the few mission churches in the south-west that still serves the original population for which it was built. That’s why preserving it for the Tohono O’odham people is crucial, Adolf said. The Patronato de San Xavier, an organisation comprising tribal members and other local residents, has been carrying out preservation work at the mission for more than 30 years.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, many tourists visited San Xavier. Docents showed them around the church and grounds, Minkel said, which made it feel more like a museum than a worship space. Tour buses filled the parking lot. Guests often walked to the front of the church for photos with the Spanish Colonial-style adornments as the backdrop.

These were the first things Minkel noticed when he arrived in 2019. And soon after his arrival, his mission became simple: He wanted to preserve what the church had meant to the people since its start. 

“It’s a bit off-putting when you’re coming to pray and there’s groups of people,” Minkel said. “If their interest is simply history and taking pictures of the artwork and not realising that someone is there praying for someone who is sick in the hospital, you don’t want that dynamic to have a chilling effect on a person’s peace of mind.”

The church is imbued with traditions, said Felicia Nuñez, who has lived on the reservation since she was born 60 years ago. Ever since she was a little girl, her parents took her to the church where they were married. As a child, she participated in all the feast events.

“It brings to us our faith, our belief and how to be a devoted Catholic,” Nuñez said. 

As the Patronato advertised and sought support for the renovation project, more tourists came to see the church. Guided tours started in 2011, Minkel said. 

Docents leading large groups would interrupt community members who had come to worship, said Tim Lewis, a member of the conservation team. He and his wife stopped regularly attending the church 10 years ago. 

“It’s a religious place and people just don’t get it,” Lewis said. “It’s not an attraction. There were signs out there but people are so busy talking so they don’t pay attention to what’s around them. They get chatty and noisy and it’s not respectful. I was tired of it.”

Then COVID-19 changed everything. 

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The San Xavier del Bac Mission. PICTURE: Denny Armstrong (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

San Xavier was the first church in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson to shut down at the start of the pandemic. Docents no longer gave tours. The museum and gift shop closed. The parking lot was empty. And for the first time, no one came to church on Easter morning.

The only sound was the occasional ringing of a bell. The peal delivered a solemn message: Another person had passed away. 

“Whatever my plans were became secondary to keeping people here safe,” Minkel said. 

Tourists were no longer welcome. For a while, no one in the village was either. But the church has slowly reopened. By June, 2020, services had resumed, with some changes.

Initially, Minkel celebrated Mass outdoors at the dance ramada instead of inside the church. Later, services were moved to the church courtyard, said village resident Mary Narcho, who attended regularly. Minkel blocked off the parking lot for some time - another measure to preserve the place for its people. 

Community members started coming back to church, as a result, said Lewis, including him and his wife Matilde. When Narcho lost her sister to COVID-19, the church was a place to pray. And after a year of suffering from severe back injuries, Nuñez rolled her wheelchair into the church for a healing service. 

The church started to feel more like a safe space again, Burrell said. 

“Because of COVID, some of them are afraid, so they wanted to get closer to God,” he said. “They wanted to be safe. I’ve talked to community members and they’ve said, ‘Oh, I need to go to church more often and be praying for the people.’ I loved when my people came to church.” 

The museum is still closed. Tours haven’t resumed. When - if - they start again is under consideration, Minkel said. Mass is still held outside. One Sunday morning service is reserved for Tohono O’odham members. Father Bill protects that time, Narcho said.