In 2018 the Benedictine Sanctuary and Covenant of Perpetual Adoration was sold to Tucson developer Ross Rulney. In the year prior to the sale the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation met with members of the Benedictine Sanctuary Building Committee who ignored our requests to consider designation of the property as a City of Tucson Historic Landmark, a zoning overlay that would provide long term protections of this cultural resource. The future of this iconic midtown property now hangs in the balance as neighbors and this developer negotiate the redevelopment of this historic place. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation continues to strongly advocate for the designation of this property as a Tucson Historic Landmark through a zoning overlay that will protect it for future generations and continues to monitor the development negotiations.
The formal name of the property was the Benedictine Convent and Perpetual Adoration Shrine of Christ the King. The development of this Catholic religious center began on June 28, 1935 when Tucson Bishop Gercke sent a formal letter of invitation to the Benedictine Motherhouse in Clyde, Missouri. The American Order of St. Benedict was established by a pioneer group of nuns who migrated from the Perpetual Adoration Convent of Maria Rickenbach in the mountains of Switzerland, establishing their community’s on the prairies of Missouri in December of 1875.
On July 28, 1935 the Benedictine Sisters purchase the Steinfeld Mansion at 300 N. Main Street in Tucson establishing the second branch house of their American Benedictine Order. The Mansion had been designed by architect Henry Trost in 1898 in a affluent neighborhood of the city today known as El Presidio. The first pioneer sisters arrived in Tucson to prepare the convent on August 17, 1935, and sixteen sisters arrived in Tucson to form the new community on October 30 of that year.
Needing a full sanctuary and chapel, the sisters hired architect Josias Joesler to design an addition to the Main Street property that was never realized. Instead of adding to the Steinfeld Mansion the sisters acquired the Country Club site and hired Tucson architect Roy Place. Using Joesler’s concept as a base, Place developed a design in his signature high Spanish Revival style.
The groundbreaking took place on November 7, 1939 and on April 21, 1940 the cornerstone quarried from the Santa Rita Mountains was laid in place. Cut into the stone was: “Regi saeculorum Eucharistico, Pacis Principi, Perpetuae Adorationis hoc templum dedicatum est – To the Eucharistic King of Ages, Prince of Peace, this Temple of Perpetual Adoration is dedicated. On December 15th 1940 the building was completed and blessed. The contractor was E. Samuel Gercke, brother of Tucson’s Bishop.
The pre-WWII Spanish Revival design was one of the last major examples of the stylistic expression in Tucson. Many of architect Roy Place’s Spanish Revival buildings from the 1920’s and 30’s not only exemplified the style but became architectural icons of the region, including the Pima County Courthouse, the Plaza Theater, the Pioneer Hotel, and Mansfield Middle School.
The two story monastery building was designed in the form of an “E.” The chapel forming the north wing, the central wing housing the refectory, kitchen and utility rooms topped by a partially covered roof deck, and the south wing the living and work rooms. Between the wings were open courtyards enclosed on the east by open air arcades. The exterior walls were constructed of brick and rendered in cement plaster. The grounds and landscape were furnished by Reid’s Rancho Palos Verdes Nurseries on Orange Grove at Oracle Road and the ornamental iron and structure steel was supplied by Tucson Iron Works.
On the occasion of the dedication a small booklet was published which described the property:
The ornate facade of the Chapel, the broken lines of the roof elevation, the clay tile roofs, the cloistral arcades, the delicate pink of stuccoed walls, and a dome faintly suggesting the Moorish influence, accentuate the lines of the Spanish Renaissance style of Architecture.
Embedded into the design of the building was artistic representation of Christian symbolism. The physical orientation of the building with a facade facing west capturing rays of the setting sun cladding the building each evening in natural gilding.
The stone casting of the facade was completed on site during construction. Eucharistic symbolism was integrated into the relief. The symbolic and religious iconography include cherubs guarding the entrance “symbolic of the unceasing adoration of the angelic spirits;” two crosses flank the portico “depicting Passion Flower, emblematic of the suffering” Tucked into the frieze above the portico: Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. The coat of arms of Pius XII and the Bishop of Tucson Daniel J. Gercke. Above the rose window the coat of arms of the Benedictine sisters: a heart on a white background surrounded by rays and a crown of thorns. Wheat and grapes symbolise the”Last Supper” and the four Evangelists are depicted in symbolic form: the man representing St. Matthew, the ox St. Luke, the lion St. Mark and the eagle St. John. The fish with basket of bread symbolizes the holy eucharist, the pelican a symbol of sacrament of love, the pomegranate the fruitfulness of the sacrament and the wounded lamb emblematic of Christ and surmounting the gable is monstrance which at times would be illuminated.
The Spanish Revival architectural detailing and symbolism was carried into the interior with a vaulted ceiling of six groined ceiling panels, separated by moulded arches that terminate at the walls with ornate corbels. Acoustical tile is set in a herringbone pattern in the ceiling. The clearstory of the nave is treated with acoustical plaster. Arches flank the nave, supported by twelve pillars representations of the twelve Apostles. In the ornate capitals are symbols of the Holy Eucharist: the “Tree of Life” and the “Heavenly Father showing ‘Manna” from above.”
The shire was purposely devoid of murals and mosaics focusing the attention on the Altar of Exposition where the “Most Blessed Sacrament” was enthroned day and night for adoration. From the installation to the deconsecration of the building, the sisters prayed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in perpetual adoration in the chapel.
Embedded into the building were relics from Tucson’s Catholic heritage. From the dedication booklet:
The confessional on the north and south link the present modern sanctuary with the past. Received as precious relics on coming to Tucson, the Benedictine Sisters have incorporated into the confessionals of the new Sanctuary portions of the mesquite wood confessionals used in the first Cathedral built by Bishop Salpointe in the “Walled City of the Old Pueblo” in 1868.
The entrance to the Convent was designed with a cloistered portico. Above the door the word PAX (Peace) is carved in wood, encircled with pomegranate design, emblematic of the fruitfulness of the life of peace.
Since 1940 the Sanctuary has been a cultural and physical landmark of midtown Tucson. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation continues to strongly advocate for the designation of this property as a Tucson Historic Landmark through a zoning overlay that will protect this cultural resource for future generations and continues to monitor the development negotiations.