We arrived before dawn to watch the sun light up the White Dove of the Desert. Even in the dark, the scaffolding was evident around one of the two bell towers, marring our view of what's considered the finest example of mission architecture in the Southwest. Despite its cocoon, there was plenty to photograph as soft rays cast warm brilliance on elegant arches, domes, portals, crosses, and figures built into the adobe structure by Franciscan missionaries between 1783 and 1797. The back parking area was reportedly a favorite spot for Ansel Adams, who enjoyed photographing the white arches against the backdrop of the distant shadowy mountains.
Moorish, Byzantine, and Mexican Renaissance styles weave together in this church that was never completed. Inside the curved mesquite door, murals, frescoes, wooden statues, and religious Mexican baroque art decorate the newly restored interior, which had been vandalized and spray-painted in the 1990s. Thanks to the efforts of the same group, who rejuvenated Rome's Sistine Chapel, the interior gleams beautifully once again.
By 7:30am, residents of the San Xavier Indian Reservation were arriving to attend Sunday morning mass. The wooden pews filled up quickly. I'd poked in for a quick look but soon gave up my spot in the back pew, having had a few glorious moments to admire the art and scalloped windows on the ceiling where shafts of light entered and illuminated a shepherd fresco. Of special interest to Catholics is the statue of St. Francis Xavier. Many make pilgrimages to visit this saint, who answers the prayers of the faithful. The patron saint lies behind a glass sarcophagus beside the main altar. But I didn't venture close enough to see.
My fingers still numb from the cold (yes, cold in February), I wandered back outside, where a group was photographing a road runner on the thatched roof of a food stand near the parking lot. Strange nesting spot. But I bypassed the bird to photograph final images of the mission. Up on a hill, twin crosses shone in the sun where an hour ago they glowed under a full moon.
San Xavier Mission, located 9 miles south of Tucson on I-19 toward Mexico, is a 15-minute drive from downtown. Free admission. Open 7am-5pm daily.