San Xavier Mission: A Beautiful Church Open to All

Leilani Valencia
December 2, 2022

With both of us growing up Catholic and going to Catholic schools, we had a keen interest to visit The San Xavier Mission Church, located at 1950 W. San Xavier Rd.  For each of us, this place holds significant meaning both spiritually and emotionally. Leilani’s connection with this Church relates to her Catholic beliefs, and a profound admiration of the Church’s history, as it has been open since 1797. She recalls feeling light and truly at peace when she first stepped inside the church, and that has played a big role in the attraction’s effect on her. As for Daniel, he went to the now-closed middle school, San Xavier Middle School – which is less than 500 feet away from the Church. Before the school was shut down in early 2022, students like Daniel would partake in Catholic traditions such as catechism classes, receiving their first holy communion, and becoming confirmed in Christ.

The San Xavier Mission School is now closed due to a decrease in student enrollment and a shortage of staff. As far as anyone knows, the school will be closed permanently. However, due to both Daniel’s involvement at both the school and the Church, and the immense history and culture,  it seemed like a no-brainer to take a deep dive into everything San Xavier Mission is.  One thing we both admired is how it is located on the tribal land of the Tohono O’odham nation.  We both enjoyed the immense feeling of God’s presence, we recall thinking that the San Xavier Mission is a place where Catholics will feel entirely welcomed.

However, the overwhelming feeling of acceptance and peace is not the only special thing about San Xavier Mission. It has become a worldwide tourist attraction due to the beauty of the church and the history of both the land, the local outreach, and the beautiful Church itself. 

Grotto View

The church is open every day from 9 AM-4 PM. We went around 1 PM on a Monday expecting the venue to be empty, however, we were very wrong. The whole location from the church to the gift shops to the grotto hill was filled with various tourists, locals, and merchants. As we had climbed the entrance of the church, we noticed mass was in session and we were unable to enter. So, to pass the time, we decided to hike up grotto hill. 

The Grotto itself was amazing. It is a hill that looks natural until you make the trek up. Even though the hill has a steep path, the ‘hike’ to the top was less than 5 minutes.  Once on top, there is another path that goes in a circle around the hill above, until you get to the very top. Halfway to the top, there is a cave that is made to resemble a tomb. It is gated off but is visible through the metal bars. A statue of the Virgin Mary is above the cave in part of the hill, and at the tip of the Grotto lays a white big cross. From the ground, the view of the cross is very clear as the sky is in the background of the cross when looking at it. 

After our first visit where we hiked up the grotto, Leilani would soon realize why tourists came from all around the world to view the church, it looked beautiful from where we were standing. The view would be as if one was a bird would gliding over the area, where you can see cars the size of fingernails. The day we went was beautiful, the sky was as clear blue as it can be while the mountains in the background lay calm and peaceful. Since Daniel had been there before, this moment only solidified the feelings and emotions Daniel had about this place; comfort and peace. 

The Vendors

After admiring the church from afar, we hiked down and were immediately met with the sight of vendors and the smell of popovers, a dish made and sold locally by the Tohono O’odham Native Americans. Here, they sell dishes that are most common within their traditions such as Indian tacos, fried bread, and various beverages. Popovers can be made in many ways; like fried bread with beans and cheese folded as if it were a huge taco or fried bread served with red or green chili. The dish is usually served on a disposable paper plate with aluminum foil covering it to preserve the heat until you’re ready to eat it. With the popover in the grasp of your hand, it looks like a ten-inch flat half-circle.

It was at this time that Daniel mentioned that very often, the tribe will set up shop outside of the church and sell popovers and various snacks to both the locals and the tourists that come to visit. We didn’t try the popovers during our visit, but Daniel has tried them before and can attest to the claim that fried bread popovers are delicious!

Another thing to check out at the mission is the mini shops. There are a couple of shops surrounding the area within a complete walkable distance. The shops have various memorabilia, jewelry, and clothing dedicated to both the Tohono O’odham tribe and the San Xavier Mission. As we walked through the different shops, we took notice of the beautiful jewelry, and I bought a bracelet with Saint Francis on it. All in all, the different shops have something for everyone, you just have to look!

The Legacy of Saint Francis

As we both just graduated from Catholic high school, Catholicism and faith in general, have been very important to the two of us. Throughout our time in Catholic high school, we were taught Theology by a Franciscan Sister,  known to us as Sister Mary Ann, who happens to live on the mission. A brief description of a Franciscan Sister is a woman who devotes her life to God and pursues the mission of Saint Francis. The mission is to spread the Gospel, be in direct service to the poor, and inspire peace and justice. She taught us a lot about both the Catholic and Franciscan missions in high school, but recently we had the amazing opportunity to interview her and receive her take on The San Xavier Mission. 

In October 2022, we visited Sister Mary Ann at our old high school and our conversation flowed so seamlessly. She started by introducing her past and why she became a sister, or more importantly a Franciscan sister. She states, “I wanted to do something radical with my life”. When we inquired more about the Franciscan roots inside of the mission and how that intermingled with her, she informed us that Saint Francis of Assisi is actually the patron saint of the Friars, who are very active in the San Xavier church. As for the Sisters, they’ve been around and helping inside the mission since the 1930s, some of the Sisters even helped teach at the aforementioned middle school.

As well as introducing the importance of Saint Francis of Assisi, Sister Mary Ann helped highlight the uniqueness of San Xavier. She mentioned that while liturgy is the same in every Catholic Church, the Mission had created many special moments for the locals. For example, they have their own choir (sometimes she plays guitar!) and sing native songs in the Tohono O’Odham language to respect the land and the locals. In addition to this, San Xavier occasionally holds mass solely for the local community, since there are always tourists. This was very special to us because it highlighted how the missionaries deeply care for their community. Sister Mary Ann believes that the members of the Tohono O’odham tribe encapsulate the characteristics of Saint Francis of Assisi by taking care of creation and living peacefully amongst themselves, the environment, and animals. 

One last core concept Sister Mary Ann laid onto us is that inside the church there is a 5 ft. full-sized wooden statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, peacefully wearing a brown gown with a cord wrapped around his waist. This cord represents the three evangelical vows which are poverty, chastity, and obedience. The significance of this is that the Friars wear the same cord, representing the same thing. Sister Mary Ann also believes in 2023 the church will soon be wrapped around in the same cord to represent the same vows of the Franciscans. As soon as she mentioned this, we knew we had to go back. 

A Deeper Look Inside the Church…

As Daniel and I walked into the Church, the first thing we noticed was the variety of colors ranging from complete brights to simple neutrals. The church itself was on the smaller side, but it was filled with personality. The roof and walls of the church were filled with beautiful paintings. The pews represented old age, which in a way that isn’t so surprising, was beautiful. As an outsider to the entire environment, Leilani was taken aback. It was amazing and comforting to listen to the different stories Daniel would tell while walking us through the church.



Leilani Valencia and Daniel Laventure are both first-yeat students studying physiology and medical sciences.