Two days ago, I stumbled across just such an entity in the lowest reaches of Arizona, out in the dust towards the bottom of the state – just south of Tucson, and barely 50 miles north of the Mexican border. Actually, ‘stumbled’ is the wrong word, because I could see the Mission San Xavier long before I arrived outside, its whitewashed towers raising their heads above the flat orange-brown of the Sonoran Desert. A pale sentry in the wilderness.
It has been this way since 1783 (though the first church on the site was founded in 1692). A splicing of religion and conquest, built by Catholic missionaries intent on converting the local Tohono O’odham tribe (on whose reservation it still stands) as Spain inched its way into the New World, the Mission is easily the oldest European-made structure in this corner of America. And so old that that it predates Arizona itself by well over a century.
America’s most craggily iconic state (here is a place that can boast two A-list geological showstoppers, in the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley) is currently in celebration mode – this being the reason why I am here. February 14th marked the precise centenary of its becoming a state, the 48th official portion of America, and the last piece of the contiguous landmass to arrive at the star-striped party (Alaska and Hawaii would follow).
The lateness of Arizona’s promotion to statehood (in 1912) is a reminder of the wars and skirmishes, the border realignments and treaty negotiations, that kept this region an area of dispute long after east-coast America had hit its stride. And the Mission San Xavier witnessed the whole process, sometimes sat in Mexico, sometimes in the fledgling USA.
Maybe it managed to develop an air of detachment during this turbulent time, because, wandering through yesterday, I was struck by how different it feels from everything else around it. Its cool interior is firmly trapped in the 18th century, all crude wooden statues of saints and walls frescoes in hues of red, yellow and green, their tales faded behind decades of candle smoke and incense. The modern world intrudes only lightly, in one unlit alcove, where photographs and letters are pinned to the reclining form of St Francis – prayers from the local population ahead of marriages, births and hospital operations.
This quiet piety seems far-divorced from much of the rest of Arizona: from the gaudy reservation-casinos half a mile away, from the convention centres and manicured golf courses of Phoenix – the state capital, and America’s sixth biggest city – 100 miles north.
And yet, the Mission San Xavier may be more a symbol of Arizona than anything the 20th and 21st centuries have thrown up. It still has the appearance of a frontier bastion, of a calm presence in an uncertain world. And Arizona will always be the frontier. As I drove north, back to Tucson, two border-patrol vehicles passed me in the other direction, siren-blaring towards Mexico. Out here, on America’s ultimate edge, some things don’t change.