THE BUILDER OF SAN XAVIER REPORTS
ILLUSTRATION: FRANCISCAN MISSIONARY
Senator Barry Goldwater once said: "Mission San Xavier del Bac is to southern Arizona what the Grand Canyon is to northern Arizona." Art historians agree that San Xavier is the finest example of Spanish architecture within what is now the United States. Its ethereal beauty creates an ambience of unreality and mystery. Not the least of its mysteries is the planning, contracting, and building procedure involved in its creation. The following documents, which throw light on these matters, are therefore rare indeed.
Construction of San Xavier may have begun as early as 1776 when Father Juan Bautista Velderrain, who laid the foundation, first arrived. An oral tradition of the last century gives 1783 as a beginning date. External evidence indicates that a start in 1776 is unlikely. It is also unlikely that Father Velderrain would begin such an ambitious project immediately upon his arrival. Some time between 1776 and 1783, therefore, the planning, contracting, and building of San Xavier began. The Mission was completed in 1797 and stood substantially as it does today.
In 1774, two years before his arrival at San Xavier, Father Velderrain was constructing a church at Mission San Ignacio del
Suaqui, some eighty miles southeast of present-day Hermosillo. The following unique accounts of the activities at San Ignacio give a detailed description of the procedure involved. The first report emanates from San Xavier's builder and the second supplies detailed documentary evidence of eighteenth-century planning, contracting, and construction procedures for frontier building in Spanish Sonora. Description of the day-to-day life of a frontier friar engaged in building a mission is particularly interesting.
TO THE INTENDANT PEDRO CORBALAN.
I received the contract for the building of the church here at Suaqui on the 23rd of the current month, together with your letter. In obedience to the orders expressed in your letter, I sent the agreement that same night to our contractors at the mining settlement of San Marcial18 to obtain the necessary signatures. So that these papers will return to your hands as soon as possible, I sent a note to Pacheco to this effect with one of my Indians of this village, who will accompany him when he returns them to you.
I must bring to your attention that the dimensions for the sacristy and baptistry, specified in the contract, are considerably less than we planned. You might mention in the report you make to His Excellency the viceroy, that these dimensions should be changed to my satisfaction. The baptistry should be at least fourteen feet long and eleven feet wide, and the sacristy sixteen feet long and fourteen feet wide.
Also, I should like to remind you that Pedro Faxalde,
the master builder, offered to enclose a cemetery contiguous to the facade of the church with three openings: one toward the front of the church and the other two to the sides, each flanked by two small pillars.19
Although I made the statement in San Marcial that this village of Suaqui already has three bells, I have since learned that one of these bells is the private property of Joaquin Cárdenas. I tell you this lest you report three bells to His Excellency, instead of only two as belonging to the village.
The Sibúbapas20 here at Suaqui will do the manual labor, but they will obviously not be able to tend their crops during the building operation. We wish to thank you, therefore, for the twenty bushels of wheat you granted us through the good graces of Bernabé Angel de Toledo. This wheat has already arrived. Enough wood to roof two rooms of the residence has also arrived. Six yoke of oxen came in from Pitic. An oven to fire the tile and brick is almost finished, which together with the cost of the local labor will come to at least five hundred pesos, no matter how it is done.
Over 3000 adobes are made and ready for the church construction. The old roof has been removed from the residence, which has been cleaned up, and the broken beams have been taken down. All of this the Sibúbapas themselves have done in the eleven days they have been working on the project. I assure you, these people work, not like Indians or even like the Spanish settlers of this land, but more like laborers from our own homeland.
However - and oh, what a shame it is - their provisions will not last even until tomorrow, and I do not know where to turn. I cannot rely further on Bernabé Angel de Toledo from what he tells me in his letter, which I enclose so that you can take the necessary steps to remedy
the situation. Nor can I depend on my personal resources, since I am only a poor religious. Only to yourself can I turn, begging you in the name of your own favorite saint to provide immediately the means to build this church without stinting on costs that cannot be avoided. If I had 300 bushels of wheat or corn in my possession at this very moment to provide the Sibúbapas, I could promise that without fail we will dedicate this church by February of next year.
On May 12 I wrote to you requesting authorization to requisition from Guaymas a large cooking cauldron or two medium-sized pozole pots. I am still waiting for that authorization. Meanwhile, I continue to labor for God and king, at times playing the role of governor of this village, at times constable, at times guest master, at times quartermaster, at times master builder, at times common laborer. I have to be everywhere at once and with everyone. I almost forget that I am a priest, except when I am saying Mass or teaching Christian doctrine - and the youth here are making good progress in this or when I am saying the Divine Office. In fact, during the one day I was not able to work at their side, my workers accomplished very little.
I have to spend considerable sums on cigarettes, raw sugar, etc., although the two contractors have promised that upon their arrival they will spare no expense to complete this project to safeguard my honor and that of my Indians, even though their own profit be reduced to very little. I beg you, therefore, to help me defray and lessen these costs of the building operation as much as possible. In this I remain ever obedient to your command. In return, may God guard you and grant you life for many years to come.
FRAY JUAN BAUTISTA VELDERRAIN
IN THIS ROYAL MINING SETTLEMENT OF SAN MARCIAL, ON THE ELEVENTH DAY OF APRIL, 1774, AT THE REQUEST OF FATHER JUAN BAUTISTA VELDERRAIN, FRANCISCAN MISSIONARY AT THE VILLAGE OF SUAQUI, THERE APPEARED BEFORE ME PEDRO CORBALAN, INTENDANT FOR THE ROYAL TREASURY IN THIS PROVINCE OF SONORA, AND THE FOLLOWING CONTRACTORS: PEDRO FAXALDE AND PEDRO ALDACO, BOTH BORN IN CASTILE AND Now RESIDENT IN THIS MINING SETTLEMENT, THE FIRST SKILLED IN ARCHITECTURE, THE SECOND IN CARPENTRY. THEY ACCEPTED THE OBLIGATION TO BUILD A CHURCH AT SUAQUl IN THE SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME AND AT THE EXPENSE OF THE ROYAL TREASURY, UNDER THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS:
This church must be 106 feet long, 25 feet wide, and 27 feet high. Its foundations must be of stone and lime mortar. These foundations must extend a foot and a half above the ground. The walls must be of adobe. Both the foundations and the walls must be four feet thick, reinforced inside and out with a lime and sand plaster. The inside walls must be whitewashed with lime. There must be a fired-brick arch where the sanctuary begins, taking its measurements from the width of the church at that point. The floor of the sanctuary, together with the two steps leading up to it, must be of fired brick. The choir loft must have a fired-brick floor, supported by dressed beams. The ceiling of the entire church must be of dressed wooden beams, supporting planed boards held by wooden pegs. The roof may be of rougher lumber, covered with tiles. Above the facade of the church, there must be three arches for the bells. The mission already has the three bells. On the right, as one enters the church, there will be a baptistry, eight feet wide and eleven feet long, of
the same architecture as the altar and with the same thickness of walls. To the right of the sanctuary there will be a sacristy fourteen feet long and ten feet wide. The main door of the church must be a double door of dressed lumber, studded with large-headed nails, and moldings. Two doors shall be hung leading into the sacristy, and one leading into the baptistry. They shall be of the same type as the main doors, and of like proportions. All of the doors must be fitted with iron locks. There must be three windows along each side of the church, one window in the baptistry, one in the choir loft, and one in the sacristy. The windows must be fashioned of dressed lumber, with hinges and latches of iron, and their size must be proportionate to the size of the church.
Also included in the contract is a tile roof for the principal room of the mission residence, a fired-brick floor, and the plastering and whitewashing of the interior. This room will provide a safe place for the provisions to be distributed to the Sibúbapas during the building operation. After the construction is finished, it will serve the missionary as his living quarters.
Upon completion of all of the above specifications at the Expense of the Two Builders, payment will be made to them to the amount of 4100 pesos. During the building operation, they will have the right to use the ten yoke of oxen belonging to the mission and the ten harnessed mules provided by me and to be returned to me later.
The Indian laborers from the Suaqui village will be provisioned at the expense of the royal treasury. They will receive no pay other than the aforementioned provisions, a few cigarettes at the expense of the royal treasury, and a promise of a small gratuity, once the project is finished, in order to encourage them in their labor. They will work under orders from the missionary and
under direction from the contractors. Anyone brought in from outside by the contractors must be supported and paid at the expense of the contractors.
The contractors will receive no pay whatsoever in advance, no matter how urgently they ask for it. They may, however, charge materials on strict account, with the co-signature of a royal official. All local officials, particularly those of the royal treasury, should be informed of this.
For lack of a royal scribe, the two contractors agreed to all of the foregoing conditions, and signed accordingly before the following witnesses: Bernabé Angel de Toledo, Manuel Bustamante, Manuel Landavaso, and myself.
PEDRO CORBALAN PEDRO FAXALDE
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Desert Documentary by Kieran McCarty - Chapter 15
Tucson, Arizona: Arizona Historical Society, 1976.
© 1976 The Arizona Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.