4. Brick-and-Mortar Missionaries, 1779–1790

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THE CHURCH AT SAN XAVIER DEL BAC stands as a striking historical monument to the constructive energies of the friars of the Franciscan Order in Pimería Alta during the era of Indian warfare and the decades of relative peace that came at the end of the Spanish colonial period. The priest who began construction of this edifice to his faith at San Francisco Xavier del Bac was Friar Juan Bautista Belderrain, who had joined Garcés at Bac after the latter returned from his long California exploration. Even Belderrain's name was long unknown to historians writing about Tucson, much less the certainty that he deserves the credit for starting the present structure. During the period of preparation of this volume, discoveries in late-18th-century Spanish documents made Belderrain's eminence clear. Yet numerous gaps in knowledge of his career remain to be filled by further archival search.

Probably Friar Belderrain arrived in Sonora with the first Franciscans following the 1767 Jesuit expulsion, or soon thereafter. By 1775, at any rate, he was ministering to the people of Tecoripa and Suaqui in Lower Pimería.1 There Belderrain gained experience in church construction. He persuaded recently pacified Lower Pimas to work on a church at Suaqui when given rations purchased by the royal exchequer. Belderrain moved to Pimería Alta in 1776, when he at least visited Tumacacori Mission2 and began ministering to the Native Americans of Bac and Piman Tucson as the companion of Friar Francisco Garcés.

The first direct notices of Friar Belderrain as missionary at San Xavier del Bac occur in the letters of Garcés. On Christmas day in 1776 the explorer-priest reported to the guardian of his college that the president of the Pimería Alta missions had sent Belderrain to Bac.3 Belderrain had probably been there since September, freeing Friar Gamarra to return to Tumacacori.

Friar Joaquín Antonio Velarde joined Belderrain at Bac for a few months. Then, in early 1777, Garcés returned to his flock after an absence of more than a year. Velarde went back to Tumacacori, where he served as assistant to Friar Pedro de Arriquibar from late 1778 to the summer of 1779.4

For two years Garcés and Belderrain labored together at Bac and Piman Tucson, converting the Native Americans to Spanish civilization and Christianity. Then the ever-restless Garcés departed for Altar to prepare for his Colorado River mission, leaving Belderrain alone until he was once again joined by Father Velarde in the summer of 1779.

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Neither Belderrain nor Velarde seems to have resembled Garcés in possessing a predilection for exploration among strange aborigines beyond the colonial frontier of settlement. Belderrain, as a matter of fact, seems to have been Garcés' precise opposite. He was a brick-and-mortar priest, a builder of churches. Fortunately for later residents of the Gadsden Purchase area, Belderrain proved to be either as gifted at church design as Garcés was at tribal diplomacy, or able to employ an architect who was.

Mystery of a Church

According to a Spanish oral tradition recorded by one of the first Anglo-Americans to settle in Tucson,5 Spanish civilian settlers came to Tucson from the San Pedro River Valley. Theirs was reputedly the first church built in the area and was dedicated to San Agustin. Spanish settlers built it with the aid of Native Americans who had fled the San Pedro River Valley with them.6

If the oral tradition did not specify Spanish builders aided by Indians, one might think the legend referred to the arrival of the San Pedro River Valley Sobaipuris in 1762, and their subsequent labor on the church at the Pueblo of Tucson financed by Father Francisco Garcés' mission field harvests in the early 1770s. That was certainly the first church building started at Piman Tucson and the first dedicated to San Agustín.

The local historian referred to all the Native Americans east of the Santa Cruz River as Harneros. This term could have been derived from Janos, a small group of Native Americans absorbed, it has been assumed, by the Chiricahua Apaches who moved into the area during historic times. “A great many of the Indians were Christianized and were baptized. In time they helped herd the cattle and till the soil” at Santa Cruz, according to the oral tradition. Inasmuch as no missionary contact had been established with Apaches prior to the new policy initiated in 1786,7 it is difficult to understand how any might have been converted earlier.

The Tucson verbal tradition might indicate that some previously converted Janos Indians escaped the Apaches and joined the Spaniards in preference to southern Athapascan domination. A Spanish military post was established at Santa Cruz in the San Pedro Valley at the same time the Tubac garrison advanced to Tucson. It lasted for five years at most before retreating. Colonial forces abandoned the post after losing 2 officers and over 80 men. The post could not be defended.8 It is doubtful whether any attacking Apaches were converted to Christianity there! Santa Cruz civilian settlers with Native American friends might have come to the Tucson area about 1779–1781, then, as refugees.9

The verbal tradition might also record a second post-1762 Sobaipuri flight to Piman Tucson. An army adjutant inspector concerned with ways to encourage settlement at Santa Cruz and “cultivation of many lands which the Sobaipuris sow”10 in 1780 suggested that some Sobaipuris had returned to the San Pedro River Valley with the temporary Spanish military advance. If so, they only had to flee again to the Tucson area.

If there were indeed 1779 refugees who built a Tucson-area church, did they help presidial Captain Pedro de Allande build the military chapel? If

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not the presidial chapel, did they help erect the Llorens convent at Piman Tucson? If not that, did they erect a chapel on some unknown site in the area? Tucson's oral tradition provides a fascinating mystery not quite solved by known documents.

Builder-Priest Alone

A Cantabrian from Spain, Belderrain's companion Joaquín Velarde was a young man. He had asked to go to the missions in 1770, and was ordained at Cádiz en route to the New World.11 Evidently not long after his return to Bac in August 1779, Velarde fell ill. Belderrain or the president sent him off to the mining camp at Cienegilla to recover.12 Still preserved in the parish archives at Altar is a record of the sad outcome:13

In the Year of Our Lord 1781, the Reverend Father Friar Joaquín Velarde, Apostolic Missionary of the College of the Holy Cross of Querétaro, Minister at the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, delivered his soul to God on the Fifth day of March in the house of Don Antonio de Castro, citizen of this Real of San Ildefonso de la Cienega, and I gave Ecclesiastical sepulchre to his body in the chancel of the church on the gospel side on the sixth day of said month. He came to this Real to cure himself, and as his illness increased, he received all the Holy Sacraments of Penitence, Eucharist and Extreme Unction. All the community attended his funeral rites, and with the assistance of the Superintending Curate and Ecclesiastical Judge Don Josef Nicolás de Mesa, all the rite was solemnized. In order to certify, I sign this day, month, and year as above.


Thus, Velarde had but little time between Garcés' departure and his own death early in 1781 to accomplish very much among the Northern Piman Indians of Bac and Tucson. While the royal Spanish post of San Agustín del Tucson was being turned into a true fortification by the construction of an adobe wall and moat, the aboriginal Northern Piman ranchería of Tucson a short half league14 across the Santa Cruz River followed the less dynamic tenor of semi-mission life. Velarde and Belderrain evidently lost none of the ground gained under Garcés, however, inasmuch as the latter was able to embark upon the most ambitious church construction program yet undertaken within the boundaries of what later became the state of Arizona. In fact, the mission church Belderrain started in 1783 was not to be equaled in size and material for many decades, and in architectural grace not for many years if at all.

By the time Velarde died, the College of the Holy Cross in Querétaro was running short of priests for its frontier missions. The two-priest policy Garcés had managed to win for Bac-Tucson lapsed, and Belderrain manned this mission by himself. His solitary situation helps to explain the nature of the documentary reference to Belderrain in the affidavits collected on orders from Captain Pedro de Allande y Saabedra to reconstruct the events during the Apache attack which carried up to the entrance to the post stockade on

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1 May 1782, translated in Chapter 7 of this book. Sections of the affidavit Belderrain wrote describing his view of the battle reveal several interesting details of his relationship to the Tucson people and their position among the frontier Native Americans. He penned his statement at San Xavier Mission on 4 May 1782.

The affidavit of the post chaplain describing the same notable battle provides additional information about mission life at Tucson in the early 1780s. When the ensign charged by the post commander with collecting statements interrogated the chaplain, the latter said that “because he found himself in the Pueblo of Tucson to visit Father Minister Friar Juan Bautista Belderrain after the conventual Mass (with the kind permission of his captain) he was unable to see the number of enemies.…”15 Thus, it appears that the chaplain and the missionary liked to meet one another at Piman Tucson after the Franciscan had celebrated Mass or other ritual for the Native American congregation. Presumably the chaplain had already celebrated Mass for the troops in the military chapel on the post. The two priests evidently felt themselves to be quite intellectually isolated on the far northern frontier of Christendom, and welcomed this weekly opportunity to converse with another man of the cloth.

In 1783, Friar Juan Bautista Belderrain began construction on the monumental church at Bac. During the next six years, he watched the massive walls rise, supervised the barrel vaulting that roofed the nave, the drum and dome that soared across the transept. By the end of 1789, he had brought the fundamental structure of the new church to completion.16

Tucson oral tradition credits Ygnacio Gauna with being one of the builders of this magnificent mission. Father Llorens placed him at the head of the list of citizens living at the mission in 1801, as shown in Table 14 in the Appendix. He was reportedly 27 at that time, making him an early teenager in Belderrain's day, a bit young to have been much of a construction worker, much less the designer of the building, as some oral accounts would have it. When Father Llorens took over in 1790, Ygnacio Gauna would have been 16 and perhaps ready to help with the finishing touches over the course of the next seven years. Thus, Gauna's role could have been no more than minor, although his existence is clearly documented. Possibly Francisco Gauna, a soldier in the presidial garrison in 1817 (see Table 10, Appendix) was Ignacio's brother, whose baptismal name oral tradition has lost.

Such fragments of verbal history help to fill in the story of the construction of the beautiful San Xavier church. The practical builder-priest who labored seven years on the grandiose project surely reported progress to his superiors, but his letters have yet to be located.

Then, late in 1789 or early in 1790, Father Belderrain died alone and unconfessed, despite the effort of his colleague at Tumacacori to reach him, reportedly by running the 45 miles between the two missions. Belderrain died without the last rites of his Church, which he administered to many others.17 Presumably his body was buried at his mission, in a spot unknown today, but most likely under the floor of the new church.

Probably Belderrain did little building at Piman Tucson, even though

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he celebrated Mass there on Sundays. The manpower of both Bac and Tucson was almost certainly all committed to the construction at Bac, or to growing crops and animals to sell to finance the purchase of construction materials and hiring of journeyman builders. Besides an oral tradition indicating that the Peaceful Apaches participated to some extent in the construction project, (see Chapter 5), traditions are still preserved by the desert-dwelling Papagos that tell of their forebears contributing labor to this cause. Belderrain's monumental plan for Bac mobilized widely scattered resources, but militated against church-building at the Pueblo of Tucson.

Piman Cultural Change

Antonio de los Reyes, who had written the 1772 report on Sonoran missions, composed yet another comprehensive report in 1784. Meanwhile, he had been appointed the first bishop of Sonora, Sinaloa and the Californias. The information about Piman Tucson on which the bishop-designate based his description of the people of that village probably was supplied to him about the time Belderrain began building his Bac church. Thus, it may be taken as a good measure of the impact Garcés, Velarde and Belderrain and interim ministers achieved on the Tucson natives during a decade and a half of conversion and directed cultural change.

The bishop-designate dismissed the Native Americans of Tucson as unambitious beings who would run about practically naked if the missionary did not “succor” them with some clothes. Reyes regarded them as lazy and labeled their customs as uncouth.18 They did work as a community, however, to raise crops, cattle and horses for the missionary to sell to supplement his stipend from the royal treasury. Apparently the Franciscans had succeeded in introducing animal husbandry where the Jesuits had failed. Moreover, the communal production organization initiated by Garcés clearly was mobilized behind the Bac church construction effort.

All the Tucson natives were still considered to be Northern Pimas, and all of them spoke their own language. None spoke Spanish.19 This meant that everyone in the village could communicate naturally and easily, but that outsiders could not do so unless they spoke Northern Piman. The Native Americans at the Pueblo of Tucson were still homogenous in the essential cultural bond of common language, even though factions had surely come into existence based on other differences — amalgamation of San Pedro River Sobaipuris and differential conversion most obviously.

By that time, although the Native Americans still lived in beehive-shaped, grass-thatched huts, Tucson presumably had become a walled village as a result of Anza's 1770 efforts20 to persuade the natives to build a protective wall. In 1785, the Tucson military commander claimed credit for improving the defensive structure, having “formed for the greater security of the Pimería, these nearby towns of adobe walled houses.21 Thus, the decade and a half following 1770 evidently saw the introduction of Spanish-style, vertical-walled, square-cornered adobe structures in the domestic and public architecture of the Native Americans of Tucson. This period must have been one of rapid change in technology and material possessions of these people.

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