The Ghosts of Tumacácori

The relationship between native people and Europeans stretches back three centuries at this Spanish mission

Even in the heat of late June, their whispers float on slender breezes that wander up from the Santa Cruz River. And nearby, beneath a stand of mesquite, sun-bleached crosses offer corporeal testimony to these ghosts of Tumacácori.

Indeed, the spirits of this lovely and rustic mission hearken back to the primeval—long before a strapping Jesuit priest named Eusebio Francisco Kino first ventured here in 1691. But the native peoples no doubt saw him coming, and graciously welcomed the stranger.

"We ascended to the valley..." Kino wrote in his journal, "and arrived at the village of San Cayetano de Tumacácori. Here they had prepared three ramadas for us; one in which to say Mass, another for sleeping, and the third for a kitchen. There were more than forty houses together here ... ."

More than three centuries later, those houses are gone. However, the mission's dignified ramparts survive, in the shadows of Interstate 19 near Nogales. After fitful construction during Kino's time, the church that remains was begun by Indian laborers in 1800. It enjoyed a moment of baroque frontier glory in the late 1820s, with an ornate, painted facade and walls resplendent in crushed red brick. But by 1848, the Tumacácori mission was abandoned.

The mission site became federal property in 1908, and part of the U.S. Park Service when that agency was created in 1916.

Unlike San Xavier, which was fully restored and remains an active church today, the walls of San José de Tumacácori exist in a state of arrested decay beneath a burnt-adobe bell tower. But you can still sense its former grandeur, when a choir loft was perched high above the 75-foot nave, a domed baptistery sat beneath the bell tower, and the walls were bursting with all the devotional elegance of Catholicism—apostles beseeching parishioners from lush paintings, and Stations of the Cross portrayed through intricate carvings.

While much of that is now gone, what remains is intriguing. Weathered columns frame the arched doorway, leading your eye to the facade. A cross mounted there catches the sun and throws lean shadows across a grassy field and the gracefully preserved outer buildings. Inside, the beauty of the nave and altar survive in simple, rough adobe. Exit through the sacristy, and stroll through the cemetery chapel. Beyond are those humble graves topped by piles of stones and the squat, weathered crosses.

Yet the simple beauty of this site also belies the complexity of its creation. Franciscan friars first accompanied Spanish expeditions into what is now Arizona in the 16th century. But the church's hand wasn't fully felt until 1687, with the arrival of Kino to this region. The tireless Jesuit quickly began a network of missions, typically placed, like Tumacácori, near Indian settlements and alongside rivers.

Stretching from modern-day Arizona into northern Sonora, these churches dot a land Spanish explorers call La Pimería Alta. Named after its indigenous residents, Land of the Upper Pima was certainly ripe for dreamers. Home to Indian villages, small farms and mineral wealth, it was seen by the priests as a vineyard to be plucked.

But first, they needed to impress the natives with monuments to their faith. Built mostly of adobe, the priests' chapels displayed an ingenious blend of local and far-flung influences: flat-roofed, rectangular structures swept forward into graceful belfries; vigas—interior wooden beams rooted in Islamic and Gothic styles—supported ceilings of saguaro ribs, mud and straw.

Then they worked hard, and sometimes coercively, to convert the masses. "The people who lived here all called themselves O'odham," says Anita Badertscher, acting chief of interpretation for Tumacácori National Historical Park. "But the Spanish divided them up, and had the name Pima for the O'odham along the river, Papago for the O'odham in the desert, and variations on names for the O'odham who were far out in the desert towards Yuma. But they were all basically O'odham to start with."

At Tumacácori, the missionaries discovered a lush spot already inhabited by the Indians. "They managed to grow a lot, irrigating large fields of wheat and corn, and they had fruit trees," Badertscher says. "It was also a floodplain and the groundwater table here is very high, so the combination made it pretty fertile."

When European politics forced the Jesuits from Spanish territories in 1767, competing Franciscans eagerly filled the void. By then, the spiritual work of their predecessors had somewhat quieted the frontier, and Franciscan friars took advantage of the relative peace by incorporating a far more sophisticated style of architecture, adding finer touches to the Jesuit's rustic adobe churches, such as fired-brick facades and elaborate adornments.

Still, it was hardly a risk-free venture. In 1793, one friar recalled strife at a mission called Tubutama, where Apaches "stole all the village livestock. Some of our village Indians they killed; others they took captive. They killed my missionary companion, Fray Felipe Guillén."

Pimería Alta's penchant for tempering ambition is likewise evident at Tumacácori. A string of factors led the O'odham and other villagers to abandon the still-unfinished mission in 1848. For one, the war between the U.S. and Mexico had left the region uneasy. "Then there was a particularly bad winter," Badertscher says. "There was an attack by Apaches up near Tubac, and there had been periodic attacks since the Apaches arrived in this area. The community of Tumacácori was quite small, and they hadn't had a priest for 20 years at that point.

"It seems like it was a last-straw kind of thing. A number of difficult things happened at once; times were tough and unsettled anyway, and they just decided to go join their families at San Xavier.

But they didn't go empty-handed. "When Tumacácori was abandoned," she says, "the O'odam people took all the santos (saints) out the church here and carried them to San Xavier, and kept them in safety there."

That's why San Xavier remains more intact today. "They went there and never left, whereas they left here, knowing that it wasn't likely that they would return soon."

And so the once-proud church sat abandoned to the elements until the 1920s, when the roof was finally replaced. But damage in the meantime had been extensive. "Lots of the artwork just faded away," Badertscher says. "Now, our philosophy is to try to protect the remaining material."

Beyond the chapel, Tumacácori's saga and that of the region are detailed in a small but excellent park museum, complete with terrific, vintage wax dioramas portraying Kino's arrival and the church's once ornate interior.

But the real story of this enchanting place is told by its ghosts, whose whispers float on slender breezes that wander up from the river.