July 21, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Father Kino was one of our country’s greatest missionaries

John F. FinkJesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino has long fascinated me. His statue is in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for the state of Arizona.

He wasn’t Spanish as you’d expect from his name, but rather an Austrian from the Italian Tyrol. His original name was Kuhn, with Kino being the Spanish equivalent.

As a member of the Jesuit’s German province, he distinguished himself in the study of mathematics, cartography and astronomy. He taught mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt. However, he wanted to be a missionary, and his superior sent him to North America.

He arrived in Mexico in 1681 and taught in Mexico City. While there, he published a book about his observations of a comet.

From 1683 to 1685, he served in a mission in Baja California. At that time, scholars taught that Baja California was an island. Father Kino was the first to establish that it actually is a peninsula.

Then, from 1687 until his death 24 years later, he worked in the vast territories in northern Sonora in Mexico and southern Arizona, New Mexico and California. During that time, he founded scores of towns and cities.

Professor Herbert Bolton of the University of California called him “the most picturesque missionary pioneer of all North America—explorer, astronomer, cartographer, mission builder, ranchman, cattle king, and defender of the frontier.”

He organized and made more than 50 expeditions as he and his comrades explored the country in the old West. No one has ever calculated the thousands of miles he must have traveled on horseback. He traveled 30 to 40 miles a day, including stops to preach and baptize the Indians.

He is credited with baptizing 4,500 Pima Indians. He opened trails that are roads today. He kept careful journals of his travels and observations, and his papers are preserved in the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.

Father Kino’s maps were the most accurate of the time. One of the maps he produced in 1705 covered an area 200 miles east-to-west and 250 miles north-to-south. His maps and several books he wrote brought him fame in Europe.

He also began 19 cattle ranches in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. He introduced European grains and fruits. Wheat culture in California began with a handful of seed he sent across a desert to a Yuma chief who had once befriended him. A mission he began in 1698 was famed for its fields of wheat, herds of cattle, sheep and goats.

He built the original Church of San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson, a popular tourist stop today. (I’ve been there.) However, he did not build the elaborate church that stands there now. It was built between 1783 and 1797, and still serves Indians in the area.

Father Kino died on March 15, 1711 at age 66 while on one of his travels, with a calfskin as a mattress and his pack saddle for a pillow.

He was surely one of the greatest missionaries this country has ever known. He preceded St. Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions, by some 82 years.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

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