Songs of the Nave: A Christmas Tradition at Mission San Xavier

Photo credit: (c)

Photo credit: (c)

By: Richard Fenwick

There is plenty to boast about in Southern Arizona, but perhaps the best of our boasts comes whenever the subject of the season makes its way into the conversation. We like to remind our out-of-town friends and families how summer monsoons bring us respite from the heat, or how verdant and alive the Sonoran Desert becomes each spring. But we invariably return to winter, so gloriously mild that visitors arrive from out-of-state each year by the thousands from northern climes to share in the boast, and to gather with Patronato San Xavier for Southern Arizona’s most enduring winter tradition: “Patronato Christmas at San Xavier.”

Maybe it feels a bit soon to be thinking of winter and Christmas, but the December concerts at Mission San Xavier del Bac—or just “the mission” if you’ve lived here long enough—have become so popular that it’s well-worth the early reminder. The mission, founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Spanish Catholic Jesuit, serves as the perfect backdrop for the yearly concerts, two performances an evening over three consecutive dates. In fact, the Christmas concerts have become so popular that Patronato San Xavier, the nonprofit created in 1978 to preserve and restore the mission, added a seventh concert in 2016 in honor of the 20th straight year the concerts have been held.

I had the good fortune to attend a performance, so I can understand why ticket demand continues to grow. The evening I attended began inside the two large tents Patronato erected just outside the church, where docents explained ongoing and future restoration efforts, and where I was reminded of the critical need to get the mission’s east tower restored. The tents also added a sense of community to the evening, a place where incoming and outgoing audiences could gather and talk excitedly about the performances. It was Christmas, after all, that time of year when we come together as a community to share in our collective gratitude. It was a typical Arizona winter evening—sweater weather, as we like to say. Entering the church together, the audience murmured excitedly and softly, as they awaited the choirs.

Try to imagine: On a mild desert evening in December, two choirs—the Sons of Orpheus Male Choir and the Tucson Arizona Boys Choir—clad in red and white robes strolled the aisles past the church’s lime-washed walls and hardwood pews, past its various restored and soon-to-be restored artwork, each choir member clutching a lit candle and singing a 16th century Finnish Christmas carol a cappella. Christmas in the desert. Sweater weather. A community reveling in familiar and not-so-familiar Christmas carols performed by two choirs whose mellifluous voices would soon rise up into the very nave of the church. Every boast of winter in Southern Arizona was most certainly complete.

It would be too easy to provide a simple list of last year’s program. The evening I attended, the audience sang along quietly to those carols we knew, such as O Holy Night and Angels We Have Heard on High. The program ranged from fun to serious—from John Rutter’s The Donkey Carol to Saint-Saëns Tecum Principium—and was perfectly choreographed from the organ’s prelude to postlude. But when Lindsey McHugh, blind since birth, so beautifully performed Ave Maria, with Kai Skaggs accompanying her on violin, I could feel our collective emotions wafting up into and across the cool air of the church as we listened, spellbound.

I first visited Mission San Xavier over 40 years ago as a teen. I was so taken back then by its still-life presence that even now, all these years later, whenever I travel along interstate 19 south of Tucson I find it impossible not to avert my eyes from the road to take another peek at its towers and dome, so white that I’ve always thought of it as a beacon of light calling out its peaceful mission into a world that’s not always so peaceful. On the night of the concert, I watched as the little church offered up its natural acoustics to the tenors and baritones of the Sons of Orpheus, and to the mezzo-sopranos of the Tucson Boys Choir. I listened as their juxtaposed voices blended effortlessly into the harmonies that make up Christmas through its tradition of carols.

But so too did I take note of the brief moments of silence between the songs. Those moments, so fleeting, affected me as much as the music, and I left that evening knowing that they’d enhanced the concert’s theme as well: that Christmas is a time for peace and reflection, that moments of silence—so perfectly placed between two traditional carols and sung beneath the dome of what happens to be the best example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States—are just as important as the loudest of arias. In those small, silent moments, even with the mission filled to capacity, the church was as still as it might have been completely empty. And in those small moments of silence, we were, as an audience, collectively at peace.

Richard Fenwick is a local writer, poet, book developer, and retired Air Force Russian translator.