Catholicism on the Border

The mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson lies on the border of the Tohono O’odham nation; the O’odham built it, and it is very much their parish. Like the Yaqui and the Tarahumara, the O’odham are often said to have their own style of Catholicism that blends pre-Spanish O’odham culture with Roman Catholicism. Though I wonder to what extent this kind of local, “folk”¬† Catholicism is all that different, in degree of syncretism and structure, from other ethnic Catholicisms that blend the local and the general, I certainly saw evidence of a lively blending at the church itself.

Here is a picture of the front of the mission:


Beautiful, but standard mission style so far.

In a post below, “Our Lady of the Borderlands,” we see a mural from inside this mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, featuring the classic Guadalupe colors of sky-blue mantle with stars, pink dress, and brown skin: a mestiza madonna, but without direct O’odham influence, as far as I can tell.

The monstrances and censer below tell a different story. (A monstrance is used to display a consecrated host for adoration as the Body of Christ; the censer holds smoking incense during the liturgy.) Here they are:


The monstrance on the left is a typical Baroque sun-pattern, with the rays of sunlight representing the grace of the Eucharist. To the right is a monstrance decorated with the expert basket-weaving the O’odham are known for–there are baskets in the background and the extreme foreground, right. The censer on the left is decorated in similar fashion. What these patterns mean I am not qualified to say, but they certainly represent an indigenous aesthetic applied to important Catholic instruments.

In the side chapel, there is yet another level of Catholic iconography represented: a gathering of plastic saints:



Notice that there is a sticker inside the central Guadalupe that reads “HOORAY!”

Compare this to the traditional statue of Saint Anthony in the main church:


And to the hand-carved statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk who will most likely be the first American Indian saint of the R.C. Church, also in the main church:


And finally, my favorite: old-style paintings of corn, bees, and quail in the mission just outside the main church:




All in all, a dazzling display of Spanish, popular, and O’odham aesthetics, all within feet of each other.

I would like to thank the O’odham community at San Xavier for its willingness to share its church with the rest of the world.


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