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Five-year, $3M restoration of Tucson-area church begins

TUCSON, Ariz. — Mission San Xavier del Bac, the historic church that is
one of southern Arizona’s most prized gems, has survived quite a bit.

In the late 1700s, it was raided by Apache Indians, and in 1887, an earthquake
wreaked havoc on the church, located on the Tohono O’odham Nation just south of
Tucson.

Now, it’s simply time that has damaged parts of Arizona’s oldest European
structure, where Catholic mass is still held.

The church’s east tower is undergoing a restoration project that goes into full
swing this summer and is expected to last five years. The projected cost is $3
million.

“The east tower is looking a little rough right now because it’s missing some
corners on top, but we removed them because we were afraid they were going to
fall,” architect Bob Vint said.

In fact, the east tower is the last remaining portion of the 232-year-old
church that needs to be repaired extensively. The mission was first established
by Jesuits in 1692, but the current structure was commissioned by Franciscan
missionaries in 1783. Construction was completed 14 years later.

While the rest of the structure is smooth and white, having undergone years of
restoration, the east tower is peeling and has a brown look to it that
distinguishes it from its neighbor to the west, a second tower that was restored
in 2009 after a five-year, $2.5 million project.

Work on the east tower was supposed to begin years ago, when the west tower was
repaired, and the cost was expected to be half of what it is now. But during the
recession, the project lost much of its funding, and restoration efforts were
delayed. Patronato San Xavier, the nonprofit that funds repairs, has so far
raised over $800,000, spokeswoman Deborah Daun said in a news release.

Mission San Xavier del Bac has been referred to as “the Sistine Chapel of the
United States” for its murals and paintings that decorate most of the interior
of the church.

The building is revered as one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial
architecture, and it has withstood centuries of misfortune, including about 50
years in the 1800s when the building was abandoned. To this day, wooden cabinets
in the west tower have markings from people who walked into the building when it
was vacant. A woman named Belle inscribed her signature with the date of June 6,
1894.