TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Vandals spray-painted on the walls of an 18th century Catholic mission, desecrating what is regarded as a significant architectural remnant from the Southwest's Spanish colonial era.
The vandalism at the San Xavier Mission south of Tucson was discovered in the morning and comes as the church is undergoing multimillion-dollar, yearslong renovations.
"When I saw it, my heart just dropped. I couldn't believe that someone could do such a thing, and I was also outraged that they would desecrate such a historical landmark and parish," said Father Edward Sarrazin, an associate priest at the church.
Sarrazin said the church attracts visitors from all over the world.
The mission was first established by Jesuits in 1692, but the current structure was commissioned by Franciscan missionaries in 1783. Construction was completed 14 years later. It has survived raids by Apache Indians, an earthquake and vandalism during the 50 years in the 1800s that the building was abandoned.
Charles Albanese, the president of the Patronato San Xavier board, which is responsible for renovations, said he couldn't imagine why anyone would vandalize the church, but that it's impossible to prevent.
"It's really a desecration of a Catholic Church, the desecration of a national monument, desecration of a world monument, an icon that represents the spirit of everything that this community stands for," he said.
Crews were working since sunrise removing words like "rape" and the numbers "666" from the front and sides of the church. The inside was locked and spared from graffiti.
Tohono O'odham tribal police were investigating and said a cemetery nearby was also vandalized. Reporters were not allowed to see the cemetery because it is on tribal land.
Tourists with cameras walked around the church as crews washed and plastered over the graffiti. "I think my heart's broken," Darlene Needham, a visitor, said.
Needham and her husband took a day trip from Gold Canyon, Arizona, to visit the church. "To see all this vandalism is just so bad."
The church's east tower is undergoing a $3 million restoration, and another tower was restored in 2009 after a five-year, $2.5 million project.
"It's horrible. I'm shocked that someone would have so little respect. It's really a shame," said Bob Vint, the architect in charge of restoration.