Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were the first to bring Catholicism to the State of Arizona. Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza was the first to visit the region in 1539; Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino established Arizona’s first mission in 1692 (still a functioning parish and historical site—see below).
Today, the state is divided into two dioceses, Phoenix to the north and Tucson to the south. Bishop Thomas Olmsted is the Ordinary of the Phoenix diocese and Bishop Gerald Kicanas the Ordinary of Tucson; both are celebrating their 10th anniversary as heads of their dioceses. Together they lead more than one million Catholics and administer 168 parishes, as well as missions.
The state is home to many beautiful, historic, unique, and inspiring churches. The following is a profile of six Arizona churches that could fall into one or more of these categories, just a few of many that could have been selected.
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Fr. Stephen Barnufsky, OFM, pastor
Mission San Xavier, the “White Dove of the Desert,” is located nine miles south of downtown Tucson. It was founded by Father Kino in 1692, and was originally under the Spanish flag. The current church was built 1783-97, and is the oldest structure built by Europeans (who directed Indian workmen) in Arizona. Today, it is both a Catholic parish serving the Indian population in the surrounding area, as well as a popular tourist site. It is a national historic landmark, and is continually undergoing preservation efforts (you’ll see, for example, that the right tower needs to be painted). It has a modest, yet beautiful wooden interior, with many 17th-century paintings and statues of the saints. On either side of the church, for example, are paintings of the Pentecost and Last Supper. It has multiple domes which have been painted. The exterior is surrounded by many magnificent cacti native to the region—cholla (or “jumping cactus”—watch the needles!), saguaro (the tall cactus, often with “arms,” an iconic image for the state), and barrel cacti, to name a few.
The church is open to the public daily, 7 am to 5 pm. Check the website for Mass times. There is also a museum and gift shop on the grounds, and a room where you can watch a movie about the history of the mission. There is a Patronato San Xavier group which promotes restoration, maintenance, and preservation of the Mission. Tour the mission yourself or check for details about taking a docent tour.
Also, alongside the church there is a hill with a white cross atop it. On the side of the hill is a Lourdes grotto replica, built by the bishop of Tucson in 1908. It has a magnificent view of Tucson in the distance, as well as the surrounding mountains. Also on the grounds is a Shrine to St. Francis of Assisi, to which many bring their petitions.
St. Mary’s Basilica, Phoenix, Franciscan Father Vincent J. Mesi, pastor and rector
St. Mary’s Basilica is a beautiful old church in downtown Phoenix. It is surrounded by hotels, offices, and the convention center, and is only about 50 yards away from the chancery office for the diocese.
The parish was established in 1881; the current church completed in 1914. Built in the traditional style, it has been staffed by Franciscan friars since 1895. Among its most notable features are its many colorful stained glass windows; in the rear, as you exit, is a particularly beautiful one featuring the Blessed Mother. It also has a traditional altar, two side altars, an altar rail, tall white columns and many statues of the saints. Alongside the church is a large courtyard featuring statues of St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II.
The parish serves 750 families, who drive in from all over the Phoenix area, as well as businessmen who come to Mass during the week. It also draws a significant number of visitors. All Masses are in English. There are a few parking spaces alongside the rectory, but the bulk of the church parking is under the chancery office.
The entrance to the chancery is on the opposite side of the courtyard, but it is not the rectory of the church and is not where you should go for information. Take a look inside the chancery, if you can, as it has a nice chapel and exhibits featuring Pope John Paul II’s visit to Phoenix in 1987. (He celebrated Mass for 75,000 in Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium; you can see the chair the pontiff sat in, and some of the items he wore, such as his miter.)
St. Rita in the Desert, Vail, Father John Allt, pastor
St. Rita in the Desert (also known as the Shrine of St. Rita) is a quaint little desert church in southern Arizona. It is dedicated to St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457), known as the “Saint of the Impossible.”
The church was established in 1935 to serve the Mexican laborers who worked on the railroad and the nearby ranches. It is small, seating about 115. Its prominent features include a large central crucifix (hand carved, originally from Bavaria), a special statue of St. Rita (with prayer petitions placed at the foot of the statue), a green marble baptismal font, and many beautiful stained glass windows that let in the bright desert sunlight. The windows, interestingly enough, were originally “rescued” from a Methodist church that was relocating. The tabernacle and altar are made of stone taken from the surrounding mountains.
It’s an attractive little parish and a good place to pray, particularly if one has a devotion to St. Rita.
St. Augustine Cathedral, Tucson, Father Gonzalo Villegas, rector
The Cathedral of St. Augustine is a beautiful church in downtown Tucson. The parish was established in 1866; the church was completed in 1868, and rebuilt in 1897. In 1928, its brick structure was transformed into its present Mexican baroque form. With the exception of the towers and façade, the current church was rebuilt in 1968. The façade features the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI, who was pope at the time it was constructed.
A central feature of its interior is a 17-foot tall, 2,000-pound Pamplona crucifix, which was carved in Spain more than 600 years ago. Other interior features include stained glass windows featuring symbols of the Apostles, paintings of Old Testament heroes such as Daniel, David, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, a portion of the church dedicated to images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a Good Shepherd mosaic over one of the side altars. The high ceilings give it a wide open feeling, and, as it is the diocesan cathedral, you’ll see the bishop’s chair there.
One of its nicest features is its newly completed vestibule area, which features a wall-to-ceiling mural with 18 saints and holy people who served the poor (including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa). The cathedral has been undergoing a renovation—murals of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and blessing children have been recently added.
St. Gianna Oratory and Holy Family Church are two communities that operate out of the same historic church building. Canon von Menshengen leads both communities. The parish is one of Tucson’s historic landmarks, and the oldest parish within the city limits. It was founded a century ago by Carmelite Fathers Lucas of St. Joseph and Eduardo of the Child Jesus, both of whom would be martyred during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Pope Benedict beatified both in 2007 (two of 497 martyrs of Spain he beatified). St. Gianna’s/Holy Family is a haven for Catholics who prefer the old liturgy, and also draws many homeschooling families. Canon von Menshengen only celebrates Mass in Latin; visiting priests celebrate the English and Spanish Masses on weekends.
The parish was previously served by Tucson diocesan priest Father Richard Rego (1934-2007), a pious priest who was a proponent of the Tridentine Mass and a friend to the Institute of Christ the King. Father Rego was a late vocation, ordained at 48. He drove 150 miles to Tucson to celebrate the Tridentine Mass (he was assigned to a parish in Ajo). In 2006, Bishop Kicanas assigned him to serve the St. Gianna Latin Mass Community. Upon his death in 2007, the bishop invited the Institute of Christ the King into the diocese to take over Father Rego’s ministry. Bishop Kicanas has since returned for confirmations, and has celebrated Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
The oratory/parish is surrounded by a poor Hispanic community and an industrial area. Although some who come are from the local community, many drive in from the surrounding areas to enjoy the traditional Latin Mass.
Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona
This chapel has no resident pastor and does not offer regular Masses, but deserves an honorable mention for its uniqueness. Completed in 1956, this chapel is built up high within Sedona’s famous red rock mesas. It commands a stunning view of the valley below. Its most prominent feature is a large exterior cross, which seems to be wedged in between two large red rocks.
The idea for the chapel came from Marguerite Brunswig Staude, an artist and philanthropist from New York. Arizona’s senator at the time, Barry Goldwater, helped her obtain the necessary permits from the Secretary of the Interior to build. Staud said of her desire to build the chapel: “That the church may come to life in the souls of men and be a living reality—herein lies the whole message of this chapel.”
It is part of the Phoenix diocese and is overseen by St. John Vianney Church in Sedona, which is about five miles away. There’s a gift shop below the chapel. You park below and walk up to the chapel; there is a golf cart service up if you don’t like the steep walk. The location of the chapel and its small size make it impractical for regular services—go to St. John Vianney for the Mass and sacraments—but it is a nice place to pray. Go early on the weekday mornings and you’ll miss the crowds.