KGUN 9NewsAbsolutely Arizona


A new addition to San Xavier Mission

Area artists adding new gates to the White Dove of the Desert
Posted: 2:30 PM, Oct 31, 2022
Updated: 2022-10-31 17:30:02-04
San Xavier Mission after east tower restoration

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — San Xavier del Bac Mission is an 'Absolutely Arizona' story 225 years in the making. But it's actually an ever-changing story, thanks to ongoing renovations.

Back in January, we showed you some of the hidden secrets uncovered during restoration work on the east tower.

Legend says if the cat on the facade ever catches the mouse, the building—or the world—will end.

The mouse being chased by the cat at San Xavier has an advantage. The original craftsman gave the mouse eyes, but not the cat.

Mouse with nails for eyes at San Xavier del Bac

"You can tell they have eyes, but they have nails," conservator Matilde Rubio said. "They are round nails and they were done when the plaster was still soft."

That restoration work is now complete on the east tower, the scaffolding removed. But work continues both inside the historic church as well as out front.

"The mission, that's the icon of the city really," artist Brian Donahue said.

Donahue and blacksmith Doug Thompson are doing some important work in their shop in Tucson.

Brian and Doug working on San Xavier gates

They have designed, and are now building the new gate to be installed in front of San Xavier Mission.

"Brian and I have done a number of interesting projects together, " said Thompson. "I feel like this is the most significant thing that we've done."

"I've done churches around the country," explained Donahue. "So, this is another one. A little bit more because it's the home turf for sure, and it's the mission itself."

They've been commissioned to build and install gates in front of the church, and also in front of the candle shop.

That part of the project has already been completed.

San Xavier gates in front of candle shop

Now the duo are hard at work fabricating the main gate.

It began with an idea and a sketch.

"It fell into place because I took the elements of the Franciscan Order and combined them with the elements around the church," said Donahue.

Artist rendering of San Xavier gates.jpg

One of those elements comes from the rope Franciscans tie around their waists. They twist the metal to form the rope-like bars of the gate.

"All of the vertical bars have got to lineup perfectly with the horizontal bars," explained Thompson. "We're using a very old technique called slitting and drifting. So, we actually slit the bar and then open it up so that the vertical bars will pass through the horizontal bars."

Twisting the bars for the San Xavier gates

There will be three ropes on each side of the gate, representing the three vows of the Franciscan Order. It all forms a cross on both side of the gate.

Brian and Doug will each put in nearly 100 hours of work on the front gate. That includes Brian putting scripture at the top of the gate by hand.

Brian engraving on gates

"A little more work, which is fine," said Donahue. "It's a labor of love."

"It's an important piece, it's a significant piece, it's right in front of the church and we take it really seriously," Thompson said.

They plan on having the gate installed in time for Christmas. We will be there to show you the finished work by these amazing artists.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.