Mission Churches of the Sonoran Desert

In the spring of 1687, an Italian Jesuit missionary named Father Eusebio Francisco Kino started work among a group of Indians on the far northwest frontier of New Spain. The Indians he visited called themselves "O'odham" or "the People" in their own language and were called "Pimas" by the Spaniards. The region where Kino worked, which he called the "Pimería Alta," or "Upper Pima Country," is now divided between the Mexican state of Sonora and the U.S. state of Arizona. Geographically, most of it falls within the Sonoran Desert region.

Father Kino and his successors changed the face of the Pimería Alta forever. They brought with them a new religion, a new political system, and new crops and domesticated animals. In 1686 the region was occupied by native peoples living in various kinds of village and transient communities. The changes the missionaries instituted tied these peoples religiously, politically, and economically to the rest of New Spain, to Spain, and ultimately, to the rest of the world. In many communities, the physical symbol of and the setting for these changes was a mission church.

Today, the Sonoran desert on both sides of the international border is dotted with the remains of these churches. Some exist only as subsurface foundations or low, crumbling adobe walls. Others, like the churches at Tumacacori, Arizona, and Cocospera, Sonora, are spectacular and more-or-less stabilized ruins. Still others are functioning churches to this day, being used for the purpose for which they were built so many years ago.

Father Kino and his contemporaries were followed by several generations of Jesuit missionaries. They established missions, taught new ideas and techniques to more or less willing Indians, built churches and other buildings, and coped with resistance and rebellion. Europeans and Indians regarded each other through the lenses of their own cultural concepts, and the expectable kinds of human tragedy (and comedy, as well) resulted from the continuing encounter. The buildings the Jesuits constructed were of adobe-sun-dried bricks of local earth mixed with water. Their roofs were flat, and covered with brush and dirt. Only one - the church of San Antonio in Oquitoa, Sonora, survives as a useable building.

In 1767, the entire Jesuit Order was expelled from the Spanish dominions in the Americas, as a result of increasing friction between the order and Spain's Bourbon monarchy. They were replaced a year or so later in the Pimería Alta by Franciscans - members of the Order of Friars Minor. These particular Franciscans had their headquarters in Queretaro, just north of Mexico City, and embarked on an ambitious building program which lasted until the first decade of the l9th Century. Most of the colonial mission churches we see today in southern Arizona and northern Sonora were built during the period 1770-1809, many of them replacing earlier Jesuit structures. The typical Fransican building material was fired brick.

To read more about the mission churches in the Sonoran Desert, consult Dr. Griffith's Suggested Readings list.

The images in this website are mostly created from 35 mm slides taken over a period of twenty years (1970 -1990) by Dr. James S. Griffith, a folklorist living in southern Arizona. Through Dr. Griffith's slides we present the major mission sites in the old Pimería Alta that can be visited today.


Map of Missions in the Sonoran Desert

Map by Marty Taylor, additional graphics by Gene Spesard

These images are the property of the University of Arizona and Dr. James S. Griffith unless otherwise noted. You are welcome to retrieve and use these images for educational purposes.

If you enjoy this website, be sure to visit Encounters: Our Columbus Legacy and Tubac Through Four Centuries: An Historical Resume and Analysis.

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