On the Mission Trail
By Bill Warner
Since its beginning back in the late 18th century, Mission Santa Barbara has made about 233 trips around the sun. That might not seem like much compared with some of the older architecture in Europe. Next to the pyramids of Egypt or Mesoamerica, 233 years is a droplet in the Pacific. But as far as buildings go, the Mission in Santa Barbara is far older than anything else in town, with the lone exception of the Presidio, the old Spanish fort up on East Canon Perdido Street. In fact, if you compare the Mission with everything else in town, everything else in town begins to look a bit ephemeral.
California’s 21 original Roman Catholic Missions — along with four concurrent presidios and numerous outlying chapels, or asistencias — are generally regarded as the state’s oldest buildings. Constructed between 1769 and 1834, they represent one of the Spanish crown’s final efforts to hang on to its North American territories. That effort came in response to the presumed aspirations of England and Russia, whose ships had been noticed poking around various bays and inlets of Alta California (the old cartographic term for the state as we now know it).
Prior to Spain’s decision to move into it, Alta California wasn’t exactly a vacuum. There were already a number of highly organized, cultivated societies there, including those of the Salinan people and the Chumash, who’d been around for thousands of years. To be sure, human remains on Santa Rosa Island go back 13,000 years, the earliest evidence of occupation on the continent to date.
Spain’s appearance in the 18th century came at the expense of those peoples. While the Europeans did introduce new modes of technology and organization, they also brought influenza, measles, and an assortment of other previously unknown maladies to which the native population had little resistance. Moreover, the Spanish model for colonizing Alta California relied heavily on the religious conversion of the indigenous peoples (or “neophytes”), who were thereby pressed into the service of the particular Mission. The upshot of that was to greatly marginalize and diminish the longstanding traditions of the original inhabitants, and the methods of the crown could be oppressive and harsh.
Following the coastal valleys and ranges from San Diego to Sonoma, each Mission settlement was established about 30 miles, roughly, from the next, this being considered the distance one could easily ride in a day’s time. The driving force behind this expansion is generally regarded to be Father Junípero Serra, by all accounts a passionate proponent and defender of the faith, who was canonized in 2015. (Serra was instrumental in founding the first nine of the Missions. He died in 1784, however. The Rev. Fermín de Lasuén and other priests founded 12 more of the Missions in the years from 1786 to 1834.)
El Camino Real, the “royal road,” is said to have been the name for the early highway connecting the Missions. In reality, it was more likely a loose, shifting configuration of footpaths and wagon trails. Today, U.S. Route 101 has been recognized as the thoroughfare most nearly aligned with the old El Camino. It bears the honor of that name and is the reason for those commemorative Mission bells you see by the right-of-way every two miles or so driving on the 101.
In 1821, following the Mexican War for Independence, Alta California fell under the auspices of the new Mexican government. In 1834, Mexico “secularized” the missions, removing them from church control and selling off the Mission landholdings to prospective ranchers. The Mexican-American War, in turn, placed the region under territorial control of the United States. By 1862, 14 years after California’s admission to the Union, the government had transferred ownership of all the Mission churches back to the Roman Catholic Church, save two — Mission La Purisima Concepción (Lompoc) and Mission San Francisco Solano (Sonoma), both of which exist today as State Historic Parks.
Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous — though by no means all — of the Missions fell into disrepair. Wherever needed, revitalization efforts began around the middle of the 1900s, continuing into the 2000s. All 21 Missions have been designated National Historic Landmarks, and each today are considered an accurate, enduring example of the structures that formed the basis for California’s first modern communities.
No surprise there: These buildings were made to last, to stand the test of time. Over the centuries, Mission Santa Barbara has been knocked down twice by earthquakes, most recently in 1925. And each time, it has risen again thanks to a kind of human magic, resuming its initial proportions, filling its original space, and fulfilling its ever growing commitment to the community.
And that’s one good reason to take a break from the highway and visit a Mission or two; they offer a meditation on time and the ways in which things can continue through time.
There are at least three other good reasons for taking in a Mission, though. One, plainly enough, would be devotion. With the exceptions of La Purisima Concepción and San Francisco Solano, all of the Missions are still fully functioning Catholic churches, providing regular services for their congregations. They function, too, as social centers, facilitating educational and cultural events, and remain involved in the welfare of the communities.
In line with that thought, the architecture and aesthetics of the California Missions make for a worthy reason to visit. In the construction of these places, you will find a high degree of authenticity more or less alive. And the art treasures and décor you’ll encounter tend toward the unforgettable — the murals at Mission San Miguel Arcángel, for example, or the 18th century oil paintings in Mission Santa Barbara, attributed by some historians to the artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
As a sensory experience, Mission chapels, churches, churchyards and grounds tend to be places where stillness, silence, and peace are never in short supply. Even where the sounds of nearby traffic might be evident, those sounds somehow become irrelevant and far away. If you’re trying to learn how to dial out the rattle, clatter, and mindless haste of the contemporary rat-race, 30 or 40 minutes in a Mission garden might be a good way to start.
All of the Missions offer guided and self-guided tours, by the way. They all have websites, too, which is a good way to find out the particulars of visiting.
Finally, these places are strong on history. Each has its own museum and resource center with considerable information on hand to pique the curiosity or to aid in research.
Whatever you might think of their role in colonial history, there is no doubt that every one of the California Missions was a nucleus for what would grow into a strong, thriving community (some of them — like Los Angeles, San Diego, or San Francisco — quite large). In part, this was because each was carefully, painstakingly planned to form a self-supporting community, a viable autarky. Each had its own program for agriculture, and each introduced such basically modern technologies as carpentry, ironworking, water transportation, and blacksmithing.
Today’s systematic cultivation of olives, fruit trees and grapes, along with the business of winemaking, began with friars and the native adherents who worked the Mission gardens. Livestock, too, was an important component of the early Mission economies. California’s first great economic boom, the early 19th century trade in cattle hides, was possible because of the successful herds started by the Missions.
In short, the Mission communities were by and large successful. The local economies that would go on to make California a major state of the Union had their genesis in the Missions. In terms of sustainability and organization, we stand to learn a lot from them.
Happily, six of the very coolest old Spanish Missions are to be found on California 101’s very own turf — in the counties of Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo — and they’re all on or close to the 101.
• Mission San Buenaventura 211 E Main St, Ventura; (805) 643-4318; sanbuenaventuramission.org
Founded in 1782, Mission San Buenaventura has seen changes across time. A sense of the original campus is still evident across the street in Mission Park, but the church itself has been through a couple of fires and earthquakes, and at least one tidal wave. Still, its appealing architecture and gracious gardens faithfully greet the dawn in downtown Ventura.
Masses are celebrated daily both in English and Spanish; guided and self-guided tours are available. The museum contains a couple of old wooden bells, among other things, along with the Mission’s original doors.
Much of Mission San Buenaventura’s water came down a stone aqueduct beginning six or seven miles up in the river valley north of town, and you can still see remains of that structure just off Cañada Larga Road, not far from its intersection with State Route 33.
Father Junípero Serra purportedly set up a large wooden cross on a promontory above the Mission. It’s been replaced at least twice over the centuries, but there’s still one standing up there, and you can drive up to see it. It’s in Grant Park, which provides a fantastic view of the Ventura River Valley, the Pacific Ocean, and the city below.
Ever involved in the community, Mission San Buenaventura lent space to the World Community Kitchen for feeding refugees from the devastating Thomas Fire of 2017.
The Mission was named for Saint Bonaventure, a 13th century theologian canonized in 1482. The actual, official, full name of the surrounding community, incidentally, is still the City of San Buenaventura. “Ventura” is a sort of abbreviation said to have come about when the Southern Pacific Railroad found it easier to print on a ticket.
• Mission Santa Barbara 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara; (805) 682-4713; santabarbaramission.org
Almost any morning or afternoon when the weather is good, you can drive up Laguna Street in Santa Barbara, swing onto East Olivas, and you’ll see folks out on the grassy lawns in front of the Mission church and over in Mission Historical Park — sitting, talking, painting, picnicking, throwing Frisbees, catching a few rays. There’s always a laid-back sense of freedom and community there.
Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1786. Like San Buenaventura, it’s seen its share of earthquakes and natural disasters — although it’s said the altar light has never gone out since it was first lit, which was by Father Fermín de Lasuén in 1789.
Fashioned largely from native sandstone, the Mission reflects elements of Roman architecture from a pre-Christian era. A distinctive Moorish fountain stands in front of the Mission arcade. An enclosed Sacred Garden, originally an area for training artisans, has been redesigned as a meditation area today. The main chapel contains two large-scale murals and an altar whose orientation was evidently designed to catch the rising rays of the winter solstice sun. Mission Santa Barbara also has a portable wooden altar, or tabernacle, inlaid with abalone shells, originally crafted by Chumash workers and recently restored.
Water from the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains arrived at the Mission by way of a 2-mile aqueduct said to have been engineered by an indigenous stonemason brought in from Baja, California. Remnants of the aqueduct can be seen just off East Olivos Street near the Mission cemetery.
Mission Santa Barbara sponsors a regular food drive, as well as youth groups, choirs, and Bible study groups. Space is available, too, for receptions, meetings and civic events. One notable date on the calendar is for I Madonnari, an Italian street painting festival usually held in late spring, when artists cover the Mission’s front plaza with vibrant chalk drawings. Another important event is Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta, or Old Spanish Days, in which the Mission plays a major role. This year’s Old Spanish Days have been slated for Aug. 5-9, 2020.
• Mission Santa Inés 1760 Mission Dr, Solvang; (805) 688-4815; missionsantaines.org
This one’s tucked away in the hills of Santa Barbara County, adjacent to the city of Solvang. Started in 1804 by Father Estevan Tápis, its name commemorates Saint Agnes, said to have been martyred in Rome sometime in the 4th century. The surrounding Santa Ynez Mountains and Santa Ynez Valley appear to reflect her name as well.
In 1820, with a diverse garden, a nearby gristmill, and nearly 12,000 head of cattle, Mission Santa Inés was a fairly prosperous rural center. Under Mexican control, it began to decline. The Chumash Revolt of 1824 began at Mission Santa Inés after the beating of a neophyte by a soldier of the Mexican army, and many of buildings in the Santa Inés compound were burned. It would be more than a century before restoration would effectively begin. Those efforts continue today, and Santa Inés is regarded as one of the best restored of all the original Missions. The original church, along with portions of a Chumash village and soldiers’ barracks are intact. So are remnants of Our Lady of Refuge seminary. Built on Mission grounds in 1844, it was California’s first institution of higher learning.
You’ll find an attractive garden at Santa Inés, along with engaging views of the surrounding landscape. No less impressive is the church itself, whose narrow interior is rendered spacious by its baroque altar, its beamed ceiling, and its high casements filling the place with natural light.
In the church and the museum you’ll find 18th century depictions of Saint Agnes along with numerous oil paintings, including a series on the Stations of the Cross. As with many of the Missions in the region, much of the interior handiwork here was done by Chumash craftsmen.
• Mission La Purisima Concepción 2295 Purisima Rd, Lompoc; (805) 733-3713; lapurisimamission.org
Some of the ruins of the original Mission La Purisima Concepción are still in downtown Lompoc. Built in 1787, that one was flattened by an 1812 earthquake before being rebuilt in the mouth of a nearby canyon. A prosperous site, the Mission failed to recover from secularization, though, and its church was never reestablished. Renovations to the site were begun in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Mission La Purisima Concepción continues today as a State Historic Park maintained by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
As such, it is certainly one of the most carefully detailed restorations to be found in California, presenting a vision of early Mission life in much the same way that Williamsburg offers a living history of colonial life in Virginia. On designated Mission Days and Village Days, docents don traditional garb and reenact the daily routines of the old La Purisima settlement.
The church’s interior wall paintings, particularly behind the altar, are nothing less than spectacular, including faux marbling, sunburst motifs, purple-and-yellow checkerboard patterns, and several trompes l’oeils. Original vestments, tools, and paintings can be seen in the museum.
Education is a priority of the La Purisima Concepción Mission Historical Park. Tours and living history days are provided regularly for student groups. Around 15,000 to 20,000 fourth graders benefit annually from the park’s Student Program. A special candlelight tour is held in
September, and a Natural History Day is scheduled every April. For specific dates, a full calendar of events can be found on the Mission’s website, lapurisimamission.org. A virtual tour of the park can be found at lapurisimavirtualtour.com.
• Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa 751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo; (805) 781-8220; missionsanluisobispo.org
In a way, the countless red-tiled rooftops of contemporary California draw their inspiration from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. After burning Chumash arrows had set its straw roof ablaze for the second or third time, the padres decided the place might look a lot nicer with a ceramic lid up top. The practice caught on with the other Missions, and then with the ranchos. So when California architects and builders fomented the Mission Revival Movement beginning in the late 19th century, you could say its wellspring was in San Luis Obispo.
When you visit this Mission, the guy you want to learn more about is Father Antonio Martinez, who was in charge of it from 1798-1830. The phrase “independent minded” doesn’t quite do him justice. By all accounts, Martinez established a lucrative local economy revolving around olive oil, wine, cowhides and beef, all of which he happily traded with the numerous Russian, English, and Yankee vessels dropping anchor off the coast — a form of smuggling in the eyes of the Spanish and, later, Mexican governments.
Burning rooftops aside, Martinez was something of an early advocate for Native Americans, going so far as to grant them land ownership and train them in the use of firearms. He didn’t much care for the Mexican regime. When emissaries from Mexico City showed up in the early 1820s, Martinez told them what they could do with their oath of allegiance. And Mexico, for its part, didn’t much care for him. The new government put Martinez on trial in 1830. Found guilty of sedition, he was deported to Spain.
Décor in the Mission church shows a kind of minimalist simplicity compared with that found in many of the other Missions. Bright and airy, it’s no less pleasing to the senses. One reason for this sparse appearance might be the fact that very little of the original Mission actually remains. The museum, accordingly, contains some good depictions of Chumash life, along with a few artifacts to illustrate the life of the clergy. Documentation of the restoration project, beginning in 1934, is strong.
The name San Luis Obispo de Tolosa commemorates Saint Louis, a 13th century bishop of Toulouse, France, who was a Franciscan hero of sorts. The Mission is situated more or less right smack in the middle of present-day San Luis Obispo’s downtown, a mere two blocks from the 101. Whether you’re planning to stop or just passing through, put this Mission on your list of things to see.
• Mission San Miguel Arcángel 775 Mission St, San Miguel; (805) 467-3256; missionsanmiguel.org
Mission San Miguel Arcángel is interesting, in part, for its lively walls on which can be seen the remarkably well-preserved Munras Murals. Esteban Munras was a young painter who traveled from Spain to start a ranch in Monterey. Around 1820, Father Juan Cabot asked him to execute a series of murals at San Miguel, an undertaking for which Munras trained a team of Salinan Indians to paint. Similar to the murals at La Purisima Concepción, sunbursts, faux marbling, and trompes l’oeils are notable.
After secularization, Mission San Miguel Arcángel functioned variously as a family home, a saloon, and a hotel. After its formal return to the Catholic Church, rebuilding of the Mission grounds and structures began in the late 19th century.
San Miguel Arcángel was severely damaged in the San Simeon earthquake of 2003, and subsequent restoration is ongoing.
The Mission quadrangle encloses a park-like inner garden. The museum contains vestments, wood carvings, and other artifacts, including a wooden wine vat. San Miguel Arcángel holds an annual fiesta.