Three miles south of Tubac on the east-side frontage road
HOURS: Daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
COST: $3 adult, free child under 16
Padre Kino founded the Mission San Jose de Tumacácori in 1691, and much of it stills stands today on the 310-acre Tumacácori National Historic Park. You can explore the mission and its grounds, which include an old graveyard, an orchard, and a re-created Piman shelter. A museum tells the history of the mission and Pimería Alta, and most days you can buy tortillas and refried beans made right before your eyes in the traditional fashion. A gift shop sells a wide assortment of books on local history.
When the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino visited the Akimel O’odham village of Tumacácori in January 1691, he did little more than say mass and promise the natives immediate and lasting salvation. But since he arrived there a day before he did the same in nearby Guevavi, technically the Mission Tumacácori is the oldest, though not the most famous nor most visited, Spanish colonial mission in Arizona.
In 2007 some 45,000 visitors walked the shady grounds of Mission Tumacácori. That’s a far cry from the approximately 200,000 that flocked to San Xavier del Bac , its more famous and prettier sister to the north. But the experience at Tumacácori is very different from the still-living traditions available at San Xavier. It’s as much about experiencing a long-lost landscape as it is about seeing a crumbling church ruin.
For many years the church was an adobe hovel on the east side of the Santa Cruz River, which back in those days flowed seasonally and gave the O’odham their lives. While the same river today flows north from Mexico past the same land, now it has surface water year-round; it’s a few inches deep with reclaimed wastewater and high levels of E. coli and coliform bacteria, so much so that you wouldn’t want to dip your feet in it.
It wasn’t until after the coming of the Franciscans that construction on the church we can all visit today got under way on the west side of the river, in about 1800. Then the narrow adobe church with the fired-brick bell tower was renamed in honor of St. Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth’s step-dad. In 1908 Teddy Roosevelt, who more than any other president saved Arizona from Arizonans, established Tumacácori National Historic Park.
To celebrate its momentous hundredth birthday, in early 2009 the park opened a new $400,000 museum. Eight years in the making, the museum is a long leap forward from the somewhat dusty early-1970s exhibits that used to tell the mission’s history. One of the most striking elements of the new museum is a huge photo of the bajada stretching west from the Santa Rita Mountains; it has been digitally cleaned of the many homes that now dot the area, showing visitors what the valley looked like when Kino first saw it. There are also large digitally illustrated panels featuring photo-realistic scenes of native life along the Santa Cruz circa 1690; they reportedly took the artist two years to complete.
The new museum is organized around three intricate wax-figure dioramas made in the 1930s that were part of the old museum but now seem fresh in their sleek new surroundings. And for the first time since 1840 a striking statue of Jesus is on display. In late 2008, the statue was returned to Tumacácori from San Xavier del Bac , where it had been kept for more than 150 years.
The mission at Tumacácori still holds masses on holidays and hosts the [node:84628 link Fiesta de Tumacácori each December, but the two other missions protected by the park are mostly in ruins. The ruins of Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas, normally closed to the public, can be visited on monthly guided tours for $10 per person; reservations are required (520/398-2341).