Ghosts And Art At Mission San Xavier

Looking up at the ornate altarpiece of Mission San Xavier.
Photo by Osie Turner

Las Vegas lies squarely within the heart of what was once known as New Spain, but unfortunately the Spanish never constructed a mission here. None the less, the Spanish Missions which span across the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and up the coast of California are still a part of our collective heritage of the southwest. The Mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson, Arizona is one of the oldest intact missions, and is the oldest European building in Arizona. With a lot of history comes many stories, and is it any shock that such an old church would possibly have a few ghosts still roaming about?

Mission San Xavier was originally constructed in the year 1700 about two miles away from where the current mission stands. That building was burned down during an Apache raid in 1770; in 1783 reconstruction of the mission began at its current site because the higher ground offered better protection against flooding. You may be surprised to find that the mission does have a further connection to Las Vegas.

The first European to set foot in Nevada was Francisco Garcés, a Franciscan friar from Spain. Garcés was first assigned to Mission San Xavier in 1768 and began exploring westward from there. He first crossed the Colorado River near present day Needles, California and then north through the Mojave Desert. It is believed he entered Nevada sometime in 1775 or 1776. Today, Garces Avenue in North Las Vegas is named after him as well as a memorial plaque in Lorenzi Park near the Springs Preserve.

As to the ghosts, San Xavier has a few. Around dawn and dusk a white haired padre has been seen around the church grounds. Another story is a bit more macabre; in 1949 a schoolhouse that was next to the mission caught fire and burned to the ground, killing everyone inside. Witnesses said they saw a nun that no one recognized inside trying to get the trapped children to safety. To this day a nun with a limp is sometimes seen leading a group of five Pima children from where the school used to stand towards the church.

One of the most memorable features of the mission’s exterior is the uncompleted tower. No one knows for sure why it was never finished, the usual mundane explanation being that the monks ran out of money, but another is that one of the more prominent native workers fell to his death during construction in the 1780s and no one else could be persuaded to go up the tower. Some visitors report feeling as if someone were watching them from the unfinished tower as well.

Something strange did occur during the walkthrough of the mission grounds. I filmed the walk from the mission doors into the mortuarium located a stone’s through away. Oddly, the film cuts off when the camera approaches the doorway leading into the small building. The file shows the correct length of the video, but only first few seconds are able to play. This had never happened before or after with that camera. While this could just be a technical difficulty, it is one that only affected this one video, and I have shot a lot of videos on the same camera.

The entrance to the mortuarium chapel.
Photo by Osie Turner

The mortuarium at San Xavier dates to 1906; these buildings are very similar to chapels and are not uncommon at older Catholic churches. As the name implies, mortuariums were used to both store the bodies of the deceased awaiting burial as well as for viewings and wakes.

Besides the history and paranormal tales of the Mission San Xavier, this article would be remiss if it did not mention the stunning artwork that fills nearly every square inch of the interior of the church. As you step through the front doors you are instantly transported to the Old World; the centuries-old frescoes and sculptures are absolutely beautiful and the massive altarpiece extends two floors and is filled with detail. It is difficult to do anything but stand in awe of this sacred place, regardless of one’s religious views or absence thereof.

Mission San Xavier is located at 1950 W San Xavier Rd., Tucson, AZ 85746. The doors are open Monday through Saturday for free self-guided tours; just be respectful if you arrive during religious services as it is still an active Catholic Church. For more information visit sanxaviermission.org and visit roadtripamerica.com for help planning your trip!

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