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Tuesday February 27, 2001

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Guarding God

By Jessica Lee

It is more than the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost now. It seems that the Catholics of Tucson might include a fourth element to the church - a 24-hour security guard.

It was not the first time San Xavier del Bac has been vandalized. But, in the last few weeks it has been the target of three different accounts of intentional damage.

It is often referred to as the "white dove of the desert." The radiantly white structure seems to emerge from the barren terrain just south of Tucson.

The story of its creation dates back to the journey of the famous Jesuit priest, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who passed through the area in 1692. In 1783, Kino inspired the creation of the church, which was built from kiln-baked bricks and covered with a white lime plaster.

In the past 200 years, the sanctuary has passed through many hands - from Spanish Jesuits to Franciscans, from Spanish to American Indians, from American Indians to the United States when they acquired San Xavier with the Gadsden Purchase of 1859.

Since then, it has become a functioning Catholic church. While the community visits the mission for worship, tourists in RVs flock to admire the structure for its Colonial Spanish architecture.

But now, security is a main issue.

Feb. 13, 2001 marked the beginning of the most recent rash of vandalism to the ancient mission. It was reported that someone had entered the chapel, Our Lady of Sorrows, and coated the statues of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with green spray paint. Also, 30 of the 55 statues were taken from the chapel and demolished in the church's courtyard. Those shrines had been placed by mourners.

In the following few weeks, two more statues were smashed, and the small sculpture of La Virgen de Guadalupe had been coated with motor oil and set aflame.

It doesn't matter if these are acts against the Catholic church, or some racist act of defiance to the Spanish-American influence in Tucson, or if it is some gang graffiti in an everlasting gang war.

What matters is that Tucson Catholic churchgoers might now have to pray under the supervision of an armed guard.

Tucson and tribal police are working full-time. Even the FBI is involved in this case.

Yet, even more importantly, the future of the mission's safety is now in the hands of its pastor, Father David Gaa.

It has caused Father Gaa to seriously consider protection issues. He has already decided to lock up the chapel with wrought-iron gates. The chapel had always been open - 24 hours a day for the past 100 years.

Hiring a full-time security guard is also an option.


San Xavier is both a historical site and a contemporary place of Catholic worship. Should an armed, authoritative presence have to impose on a religious atmosphere?

Father Gaa was serious when he recently commented, "I will not turn this into an armed encampment."

Guns and God do not mix. Of course.

One of Tucson's treasures could be turned into a 24-hour police surveillance spot. What's next? French dudes with semi-automatic rifles standing outside Notre Dame?

The desecration has shaken the hearts of the Tucson community. It poses questions of religious morals and personal comfort. Many citizens cannot imagine passing by a guard to attend daily worship.

Just imagine - the Sunday mass would bow its head in prayer. The security watchman would keep his eyes straight ahead and remain motionless. He is on duty. He will protect the church from the wrath of hatred.

In these times of graffiti and vandalism in a religious refuge, it is not unfathomable that Father Gaa might have to turn to an aggressive patrol instead of to God.