San Xavier de bac Mission

In the spring of 1687, an Italian Jesuit missionary named Father Eusebio Francisco Kino started work among a group of Indians on the far northwest frontier of New Spain. The Indians he visited called themselves "O'odham" or "the People" in their own language and were called "Pimas" by the Spaniards. The region where Kino worked, which he called the "Pimerķa Alta," or "Upper Pima Country," is now divided between the Mexican state of Sonora and the U.S. state of Arizona. Geographically, most of it falls within the Sonoran Desert region.

Father Kino and his successors changed the face of the Pimerķa Alta forever. They brought with them a new religion, a new political system, and new crops and domesticated animals. In 1686 the region was occupied by native peoples living in various kinds of village and transient communities. The changes the missionaries instituted tied these peoples religiously, politically, and economically to the rest of New Spain, to Spain, and ultimately, to the rest of the world. In many communities, the physical symbol of and the setting for these changes was a mission church.

Today, the Sonoran desert on both sides of the international border is dotted with the remains of these churches. Some exist only as subsurface foundations or low, crumbling adobe walls. Others, like the churches at Tumacacori, Arizona and Cocospera, Sonora, are spectacular and more-or-less stabilized ruins. Still others are functioning churches to this day, being used for the purpose for which they were built so many years ago.

Father Kino and his contemporaries were followed by several generations of Jesuit missionaries. They established missions, taught new ideas and techniques to more or less willing Indians, built churches and other buildings, and coped with resistance and rebellion. Europeans and Indians regarded each other through the lenses of their own cultural concepts, and the expectable kinds of human tragedy (and comedy, as well) resulted from the continuing encounter. The buildings the Jesuits constructed were of adobe-sun-dried bricks of local earth mixed with water. Their roofs were flat, and covered with brush and dirt. Only one - the church of San Antonio in Oquitoa, Sonora, survives as a useable building.

In 1767, the entire Jesuit Order was expelled from the Spanish dominions in the Americas, as a result of increasing friction between the order and Spain's Bourbon monarchy. They were replaced a year or so later in the Pimerķa Alta by Franciscans - members of the Order of Friars Minor. These particular Franciscans had their headquarters in Queretaro, just north of Mexico City, and embarked on an ambitious building program which lasted until the first decade of the l9th Century. Most of the colonial mission churches we see today in southern Arizona and northern Sonora were built during the period 1770-1809, many of them replacing earlier Jesuit structures. The typical Franciscan building material was fired brick.


Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J.

Eusebio Kino was born in 1645 in the Italian Tyrol. His family name was originally Chini, and there are still Chinis living in his home town of Segno. He was educated at Jesuit colleges, first in Trent, and later in Hall, near the Austrian city of Innsbruck. In 1663 he suffered a severe illness and promised his patron saint, St. Francis Xavier, that he would become a missionary if he recovered. He did recover, and embarked on the rigorous training of a Jesuit, which lasted until 1677. He was then sent to Mexico, where he attempted to establish a mission program in the dry and inhospitable region of Baja California. The time was not yet ripe for this enterprise, however, and Kino was reassigned to northern Sonora in 1687.

Thus began a career in the Pimerķa Alta that lasted until his death in 1711. An indefatigable traveller and worker, Kino started mission programs at twenty villages. He introduced Christianity and the Spanish Empire to what is now a wide area of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. He also introduced wheat and beef cattle into the region. Over three centuries after Kino's arrival, the regional Mexican and Native diet is still strongly based on beef, cheese, and wheat products.

Kino labored in the Pimerķa Alta until March, 1711, when he arrived in Magdalena to dedicate a new chapel to St. Francis, his patron saint. He fell suddenly ill and died near midnight on March 15, 1711. He was buried beneath the floor of the chapel he had come to dedicate. His bones were rediscovered in 1966, long after the chapel had disappeared from the scene. They are currently on display in their final resting place in the Magdalena plaza.


The Tohono O'Odham

A chapel at the village of San Simon, in the western part of Tohono O'odham Nation. Like all traditional O'odham Catholic chapels, the door faces east. The two structures in the foreground are a cross and a niche containing a saint's image. They serve as the focal point for the procession that takes place on feast days. This sort of cross is often called the "field cross."

The Tohono O'odham or Desert People were until the 1980s known as the Papago Indians. However, they decided to abandon this name - it means "Bean Eaters" - and return to the name they have always called themselves. The Tohono O'odham live on the second largest reservation in the United States, which stretches for over a hundred miles along the Mexico/Arizona border and extends far into Southern Arizona. Traditionally, they followed a unique agricultural system designed to take advantage of heavy flooding that follows summer thundershowers in this desert country. Few contemporary O'odham grow their traditional crops any more, however, and most live in permanent villages watered by deep wells or in the cities surrounding their reservation.

The O'odham language is still very much alive, as are many of the traditional beliefs and attitudes that the early missionaries encountered. Most O'odham have moved north across the border into the United States, although a small remnant population still lives in Sonora. Most O'odham are Catholics, having been exposed to missionary activities sing the late 17th Century.

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