By Eli Pacheco 

There is something different about San Xavier Mission School’s latest revival. 

This historic building, located at the apex of the Pascua Yaqui and San Xavier Indian reservations in Tuscon, Arizona, has had its openings and closings. On Aug. 5, it will reopen, accepting students in grades kindergarten to second grade, with a renewed purpose and mission in the community. 

“It is a blessing to know we’re reopening, and people have a sense of relief,” said Minh Solorzano, San Xavier’s new principal. “Most community members are alumni and have been here many years. Their children attended here. Their grandchildren attended here.” 

With help from the Black and Indian Mission Office and other benefactors, San Xavier Mission School has risen from the desert once again. It is more than a fresh coat of paint and a new generation of students.  

It is a renewal of cultural significance and historical healing. 

Manuel Martinez, a friend of the community, sees the ministry of school metamorphosizing.  

“Nowadays in schools, religious sisters and friars' appearance is minimal,” he said. “This is an undertaking by the laity. What comes with that new identity is a new perception that it is not the rigorous Catholic school that was around in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.”


Staff welcome prospective students and their families to the school

St. Xavier Mission School has held one open house and will host another before the next school year begins. Parents of prospective students have taken information packets to learn more about the school. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Martinez) 

A historic Mexican baroque building with the words

The building at St. Xavier Mission School is a landmark. “It’s a gem – there's nothing else like it,” said Br. Ponchie Vasquez, OFM, the school’s pastor and guardian. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Martinez) 

‘There’s nothing else like it’ 

Br. Ponchie Vasquez, OFM, is the school’s pastor and guardian of the local friar community. He has served the Tohono O’odham reservation since 2002.  

In August 2022, Br. Ponchie had to inform families that San Xavier School would close. There were not enough students and teachers to keep up with the budget. 

Now, he will welcome a new era of education to what he calls a “historical monument.” 

“It’s a gem – there’s nothing else like it,” Br. Ponchie said. “It is an example of Mexican baroque architecture that has survived. Our statues of the saints, including St. Francis, are central to pilgrimages here, a religious piety that is broader than the local parish.” 

Integration of culture

San Xavier collaborates with the Department of Catholic Schools to plan curriculum and programs. Students will learn local Tohono O’odham culture, language, and traditions.  

San Xavier School’s rebirth creates an opportunity for tribal elders to educate students. 

“We want a generational program at the school to bring together the elders and the kids, so they can learn about their culture and language,” Minh, who brings 20 years of experience as a principal at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Tucson, said. 

She contacted Tohono O’odham Community College for a certified language and culture teacher for an elective class.  

“It is a critical piece of our curriculum,” she said. “We are praying and hoping we can find a person who can do that."

A woman welcomes a family to the building with a handshake and a smile

New St. Xavier Mission School principal Minh Solorzano has taken a proactive approach and embraced the community leading up to the school’s reopening. “It is a blessing to know we’re reopening, and people have a sense of relief,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Martinez) 

A sign reads: San Xavier Mission School is a Catholic community committed to life-long learning and academic excellence that is rooted in the Gospel Values, O'odham Himdag (Way of Life) and Service - where gifts and talents are celebrated and nurtured.

San Xavier Mission School will teach a curriculum steeped in the Gospels, O’odham Himdag, and service, and preserving the native language. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Martinez)

A table with a purple tablecloth with the school's logo. It is covered with informational material for student.

New flooring in classrooms, the common area, and offices give St. Xavier Mission School a modern look. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Martinez)

Building partnerships 

Public generosity and support enabled a small yet determined staff to oversee the installation of new flooring, lights, and windows, and a refresh of a familiar setting primed for revitalization. Work will continue this summer. 

The crew has spent a year cleaning and renovating. Re-enrollment started in January, and Minh said they hope to have 45 students this fall. 

The school is building community partnerships, applying for grants, and cultivating donors to strengthen this endeavor toward the goal of a K-12 school. 

Manuel credits Minh’s leadership for the momentum. 

“It still has its old identity, but it is transitioning into an updated identity needed to meet current times,” he said. “It is a whole umbrella of things, the Catholic church’s identity in the world and amongst native peoples.” 

‘They go together’ 

The Franciscans have served for decades on the Tohono O’odham reservation, a vast region the size of Connecticut.  

“They go together because their beliefs and philosophy merge with the Franciscans in their values,” Minh said. “A lot are Catholic, so it makes it easier for them to grasp those values because it is similar.” 

Br. Ponchie envisions the school at its peak, with students in every grade, perpetuating a new tradition of education in the area. 

“Ultimately, at the height, we’ll have 175 children,” he said. “That is about all we can hold. Two hundred is too crowded. Education is our primary concern in small classrooms. We never intended it to be a big school. Culture is important.” 

Soon, San Xavier School will bustle with learning and community in a way some here will always remember – and that will be new to many others. 

“It’s not punitive or anything of that nature,” Manny said. “We want to make that known. It is not like the Catholic school our grandparents went to. The effort of building that new perception takes a lot of work.”