Being a priest at one of Southern Arizona’s most popular tourist sites

This story was completed for my Reporting Public Affairs class

SAN XAVIER INDIAN RESERVATION — Rev. Stephen Barnufsky shuffles his feet gingerly as he makes his way past the altar and up to the pulpit inside Mission San Xavier del Bac on a recent Monday morning.

Scaffolding looms behind Barnufsky as he slouches over the podium to deliver the daily mass’s homily on the value of humility in faith to a couple dozen faithful.

For 12 years, Barnufsky has led the congregation and delivered sermons inside these historical walls, which, he said, is nothing like your typical parish church.

In additional to being a popular tourist site, Mission San Xavier remains an active Roman Catholic parish serving the Tohono O’odham people on the San Xavier Indian Reservation. It’s not an easy job, Barnufsky, 66, said.

The job balances leading the spiritual mission of the church, working with pilgrims and tourists who come through regularly and contending with the seemingly constant state of construction at the mission.

“To juggle all of that is a challenge,” he said.

Barnufsky, who wears a tired visage and comfortable shoes, works six-day weeks. The large, white calendar in his cluttered office is filled with scribbles on nearly every day of the month with obligations.

The Franciscan priest performs mass each day and four times on Sunday with the help of the associate pastor, Rev. Ed Sarrazin. Barnufsky also performs funerals, weddings and baptisms for the local community in the Tohono O’odham village of Wa:k on the San Xavier reservation.

“It’s exciting but it’s also sometimes frustrating because the tourists will sometimes expect that they can come to the church at any time,” Barnufsky said. “The people who want to come to worship are trying to get in there to pray.”

The mission attracts about 200,000 tourists a year, according to the parish.

He makes time for people who come into his office needing to speak to a priest. He also prepares homilies each day and discharges administrative duties overseeing the mission staff.

Barnufsky also helps with the operations of and raise money for the San Xavier Mission School, which serves K-8 students on the reservation.

Cindy DeBro, parish administrative assistant, said Barnufsky recognizes that he needs to be flexible in this unique role of leading Mission San Xavier. DeBro works with Barnufsky to run the administrative operations of the church.

“He knows the expectations of the parish and he meets and exceeds them on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

All the while, Barnufsky said, he has to dodge scaffolding and workers who are completing the restoration of the 218-year-old church.

***

Mission San Xavier would receive at least $2.5 million for restoration of its east tower and façade should the Pima County bond question Proposition 430 be approved by voters next month. That money raised would be matched by the Patronato San Xavier, a non-secular and nonprofit group that promotes the preservation and restoration of the mission.

Miles Green, executive director of the Patronato, said Barnufsky — who serves on the Patronato Board by virtue of his position — is easy to work with. He said, however, he knows the parish leaders can get quite “vexed” by the renovation work because it is intrusive on their day-to-day work.

“Clearly they appreciate the work that’s being done, but they also realize that the main mission of the church is to minister to the congregation,” Green said.

The parish also recognizes that they are working in an important site that’s part of the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Green said.

Barnufsky said that likely means his sermons reach a greater number of individuals than the typical neighborhood parish priest would. Mass at the mission also brings together a more diverse group of people, he said.

“I’ve been in parishes where it’s just all one ethnic group and that’s OK, but it’s nice to have an ethnic mix,” Barnufsky said, “because, hopefully if they pray together, they’ll get along on the outside, too.”

At a typical Sunday mass, the pews will be filled with some Tohono O’odham and others from nearby parts of southern Tucson. Mostly, though, tourists and visitors, many of whom are Catholic, sit in the church during mass to take in the experience, Barnufsky said.

There are drawbacks to a constantly shifting congregation, Barnufsky said.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships with regular congregants because the mission has so few of them, he said.

“In parishes that I’ve been in before, it’s predictable who’s going to be at which mass,” Barnufsky said. “They form a little of community of their own and you learn their names and know when they’re missing. Here there are new faces every week.”

Barnufsky said he takes every opportunity to engage the local reservation community to visit homes and develop relationships.

He said the Tohono O’odham enjoy religious celebrations, such as death anniversaries. “Those add up over time,” he said.

Those celebrations are opportunities for him to engage them and carry out the original purpose of the San Xavier mission — to serve the spiritual needs of the Tohono O’odham people.

***

Barnufsky considered the priesthood since he was young boy growing up in Spokane, Washington. Something, he said, he owes to having good role models for priests growing up.

He’s been a priest for 39 years, first working in his native Pacific Northwest before moving to California. Barnufsky came to the desert in March 2003 from Oakland, California to serve at the mission.

He keeps a picture of the Cascade Mountains among depictions of Jesus, the mission and the Archbishop Óscar Romero in his office because it reminds him of home. Barnufsky said if he hadn’t become a priest, he probably never would have left Spokane.

Barnufsky said he’s glad to be a priest and he’s had the chance to experience more of the world because of it — visits to Rome to see the Pope and trips to study in England and Scotland.

He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to continue being an active priest.

A retired priest who lives at the mission continued ministering until he was 80 years old, an age Barnufsky said he doesn’t think he will be able to work at.

Barnufsky said he doesn’t forget the reason he decided to enter the priesthood. “It was a desire to help people in a lot of different ways and draw closer to God. That’s basically the reason I’ve stayed, too,” he said.

“Sometimes your reason for staying is more important than the reason you started,” he said about the priesthood. “When you start, you have high ideals — and that’s true in any profession — and when reality sets in, it’s not exactly like the ideal. You have to ask ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I still here?’ But I think life has been good to me.”

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