The Tumacacori Mission Revisited

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by Richard A. Zidonis   Contact Rich

A reader asked, “For how many years was Father Kino resident at the Tumacácori mission?” Well, he was never resident, and to tell the tale, I must first apologize for the length of the answer by paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw: “I am sorry this piece is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”


Tumacacori Mission Missing PedimentAnyone who has driven the frontage road through Tumacácori has passed by the adobe and wood ruins marking the location of the Tumacácori National Historic Park, a.k.a. the Tumacácori Mission, which we celebrate as the oldest mission site in Arizona.

Unbeknown to most, though, is that the first iteration of the mission, correctly known as mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori, established by Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino in January 1691, was located on the east side of the river.

It was sixty-two years later in 1753, after the 1751 Pima revolution, that the Jesuits abandoned the “east” location and moved the mission site to the west side of the river. This second iteration was named mission San José de Tumacácori. Further unbeknown to most, the mission we see today is the third and not yet finished result of an ambitious undertaking by the Franciscans in the 1800s.


As a side note, that Father Kino “established” the first Tumacácori mission is without controversy, but one could say that on a difficulty level from one to ten, the establishment of the mission was an easy “one.”


Piman Indian couriers intercepted Father Kino’s entourage at a location to the south of Tumacácori near Dolores. The Jesuits were on a fact finding mission visiting area priests. The Pimans, who referred to themselves as O’Odham, politely insisted that Father Kino visit their ranchería, which he did.

The Pimans called their community the ranchería of San Cayetano del Tumacácori. For reasons lost to the ages, the Pimans actively planned to attract a spiritual leader, going to the extent of preparing an area within their ranchería for a priest to celebrate mass, to sleep, and to prepare food. When Father Kino arrived, he liked what he saw, so he accepted the Pimans arrangements and “established” his mission. The Piman’s “turn key” solution worked, but, even so, and despite ongo ing promises, Tumacácori was never home to Kino or any resident Jesuit priest.


One more slight digression: Father Kino died on March 15, 1711. His successor was Father Augustín de Campos. During one of his trips to the visita, Father Campos baptized a baby brought to him from an adjacent village. This baptism took place in April, 1726. The entry in the church records established the first instance of the name of Tumacácori’s nearest neighbor, the ranchería of Tubac. Now back to the story at hand.


But what starts must end. Jesuit Father Kino was working for the King of Spain when he established the mission in 1691. Over eighty years later, after a European kerfuffle over a plot to kill the King of Portugal, another King of Spain expelled the Jesuits from New Spain’s Tumacácori. In 1767 it was out with the Jesuits, and in with the grey-robed Franciscans. By September of that year, Tumacácori finally had its first resident priest, a Franciscan.


Tumacacori 1889Absent that nasty smallpox breakout or the constant depredations by the Apaches, the next three decades were more or less uneventful. Time moved slowly along, but by 1803 the church at Tumacácori was declared sub-standard and in need of replacement.

Two years earlier, in 1801, the Franciscans hired a maestro de albañil, or master bricklayer to establish a set of plans for a new mission building. With cash in hand, construction began… and ended… in 1802, when the money ran out. The initial burst of work managed to complete only an above ground cobblestone foundation. With the new building on hold, the Franciscans continued to make do with the old and tired, 1750’s Jesuit church.


Then things got worse.


In 1809 Spain was invaded, and with the country militarily weak, Spain fell to the forces of Napoleon. Even though Spain was thousands of miles away, small Tumacácori felt the echo of that Old World war. At first glance it seemed that all led a peaceful life in Tumacácori, but the truth was that the Spaniards born in New Spain suffered at the hands of those born in Old Spain, and by 1810, this suffering erupted in violence.


If you will allow another digression, I would add that these insurgents were led by a secular priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Although he ultimately failed as a military commander, his efforts and subsequent execution propelled him into history as the Father of Mexican Independence.


“His” turmoil lasted from 1810 through to 1821. Ultimately the conflict produced a twenty-four article plan for Mexico’s independence from Spain. The first three articles, those being Mexico’s complete independence, Catholicism as the one true religion, and racial equality, were so well received that the these three guarantees became the tri-color, green white red, flag of Mexico that we know today.


Digression ended.


But what of the Tumacácori Mission?


Father Juan Bautista Estelric arrived in Tumacácori in 1820. And the good Father, along with a visiting Bishop, recognized that the wealth of the mission was its herds of cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and donkeys. One of the two quickly initiated a contract with a prominent Sonoran officer, Don Ignacio Peréz, who wished to be a prominent farmer. Livestock was sold to the Sonoran for the enormous sum of $12,000 pesos, with the first installment of $4,000 pesos due upon delivery. Construction resumed, and a great deal was accomplished before the initial money installment ran out some 6-1/2 months later.


Then, again, things got worse.


Prominent Don Ignacio Peréz prominently resisted paying the remaining monies due.


And there was Father Juan with that wife and children thing to explain.


The “no money for ongoing construction” problem apparently created too much spare time for some. There was this 1822 scandal that forced the removal of Father Juan from his lofty role in Tumacácori. Seems a woman was involved, which was bad for a celibate man of the mission, and there were these small details, two children, who called Father daddy. But not to worry. This was all resolved by placing a new spiritual leader at the mission, Father Ramón Liberós, who was an excellent choice as he spent the next sixteen months pursuing the prominent deadbeat who owed the pesos.


Before this narrative gets away from me and turns into a Jerry Springer script, let me say that the midnight calls from the Ramón Liberós collection agency paid off. The final installment of the money owed arrived in September of 1823. The mission was once again an active work in progress. Deadbeat… resolved. Father daddy… forgotten. Construction… renewed.


Now, even though the grand plans drawn decades earlier were changed constantly to match the available funds, the mission was never completed. It was Spain. More specifically, it was Spain’s refusal to recognize an independent Mexico, and this prompted Mexico to pass a law saying that the Spaniards needed to go home. The onus fell upon the presidial commander from Tucson, who promptly arrived and gave Father Ramón Liberós three days to leave.


The ruins we see today mark the state of the mission when the good Father left Tumacácori in 1828. As he began his long journey home, I am sure he took one last look at the beautiful church and convento gleaming in contrast to the brilliant blue sky, but even in that delight he also saw the scaffolding in place at the unfinished bell tower and mortuary. He didn’t know it, but as he rode away, so did the mission’s future.  


Twenty years later, Tubac was under a savage Apache attack that left the dead to be buried and the survivors to be moved to the safety of Tucson. The few who remained at Tumacácori packed the mission’s sacred pieces and carried them for safekeeping to Mission San Xavier, three leagues below the Old Pueblo. Tubac was again deserted. Tumacácori was abandoned. The mission lasted 157 years. The date of its demise was December 9, 1848, a Saturday, a few hours short of a final Sunday service.

As the man once said, when you get to where you're going, there you are. And that's where we are: at the end of another story. Until we meet again, stay well... and see you somewhere. Rich and Peggy