TUCSON, Ariz. — Known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier Del Bac Mission annually hosts 200,000 visitors. The pandemic has changed that.
The mission is open, but with major restrictions to tourists and parishioners.
The Tohono O'odham people have celebrated mass here since Padre Kino established the mission in 1862.
"I don't think we'll be able to have masses in the traditional way," said Rev. Bill Minkel, Pastor of San Xavier Del Bac Mission. "We haven't had anything since March when we first closed. The ventilation really, there isn't any ventilation. They didn't foresee the need for windows or air conditioning."
No air conditioning because the Franciscans completed the present church in 1797.
The Father Minkel did perform outdoor masses for small groups of his parishioners earlier this fall, but recently stopped with the rise in coronavirus cases.
San Xavier remains partially open. Visitors can still come to see the history and take time to reflect during this time of uncertainty.
"A place for people to say a prayer," Minkel said. "Just a quick prayer or light a candle."
The mission is now cutting back on visitors going into the church, with a reduction in hours. It is now open from just 9 a.m. to noon each day.
"We're kind of scaling back just a little bit," according to Minkel. "We've seen not just a rise in the numbers in Tucson and Arizona, but here locally. Some of our community members have reported coming in contact. We just have to be more careful."
Visitors must wear masks and are limited to just five minutes in the back of the church.
"We kind of gauge the number of people at a time," Minkel said. "We don't want more than about eight or so people. We ask them to take no more than five minutes if there are others waiting."
Visitors then exit through the side door.
While Minkel is disappointed Christmas Mass won't be celebrated with his parish, recent events are giving him hope. He believes by Easter he will be able to celebrate mass.
"The vaccine, you know, that's one of my messages lately. There is hope. We just have to hang in there. There's a lot of things to be hopeful for."
Restoration continues at San Xavier, and construction on the never-finished east tower is about to begin.
Minkel says a contract will be awarded soon, with construction beginning by March.