TUMACÁCORI and TUCSON, AZ (ARIZONA HIGHWAYS TV) -- One person might call Tumacácori Mission north of Nogales a ruin. Another might say it's a work in progress. They'd both be right.

[WATCH: Southern Arizona home to 2 historic missions]

The Tumacácori Mission was abandoned many years ago; it's now a national park. The roof and the floor are new, but the rest of the church is the same adobe mud bricks and lime plaster Spanish priests and Native Americans used to build the church 200 years ago. Work began in 1800, and while Spanish friars started holding mass there in 1822, the church was never completed.

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Apart from the church, the mission is much older. It was started in 1691. Father Kino came to what would become southern Arizona at the request of the native people, the O'odham. But the Catholic missionaries fell out of favor with the native tribes over time, and the mission abandoned.

After it was no longer in use, treasure hunters smashed away parts of the plaster on the church walls, looking for treasure.

For many, including “Arizona Highways TV” host Robin Sewell, the most moving part of Tumacácori is not inside, but outside, where simple graves are marked only with desert stone and Spanish Colonial crucifixes.

Tumacácori Mission

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About 80 miles north of Tumacácori Mission is an international treasure. Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson has been called the finest example of Spanish Colonial art and architecture in the United States. Tucson author Kathleen Walker said it is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona.

San Xavier del Bac

“This is original,” she said. “No one has redesigned this and said, ‘Maybe it looked like this, and maybe we should add this design.’ This is the way it looked 200 years ago.”

The mission is constructed of low-fire clay brick, stone and lime mortar.

“Much of the work here was done by the native people, who, to this day, have remained predominantly Catholic,” Walk explained. “What we see here is proof of their artistry, as well as their ability to build, because in reality, this was considered the end of civilization in the Spanish frame of mind."

San Xavier del Bac

Walk into San Xavier and you can’t help but admire the dazzling colors, the murals, paintings, carvings, and statues. The floor plan of the church is in the shape of the classic Latin cross, but being inside this piece of history does more than thrill you with this incredible architecture.

“People going into this church have often told me when I've been here, they feel touched by something in the church, and it may have nothing to do with their particular religion or belief system,” Walker said. “But there's something very gentle; there's something very peaceful. And part of that magic is you can come here during mass, when the church is jam-packed with people, and yet you always feel like there's room. It's an incredible feeling.”

The mission has survived warring factions of Apache, earthquakes, and lightning strikes, and gazing at it from Highway 19 in southern Arizona, it's a testament to the strength of the natives who built it, and whose descendants still worship in it.

“When you come upon the church from a distance, it still looks the way it looked -- like a beacon at the edge of an empire,” Walker said.


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