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American Latino Heritage
Santa Barbara Mission
Santa Barbara, California
Few buildings define the Spanish heritage of our nation like the chain of 21 California missions established throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their beauty, stature and history help shape our understanding of California’s evolution and its story of Native American occupation, Spanish colonization, Mexican independence, and eventual statehood.
First established in 1786 as the 10th in the mission chain, the Santa Barbara Mission, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the most sophisticated and classically proportioned missions of the original 21. The Santa Barbara mission church, completed in 1820, is the only original mission church to survive unaltered into the 20th century. Its historic sanctuary light has never been extinguished. Based on the form of a Roman Ionic temple, the church is immense, with stunning proportions and extraordinary architectural design that have led it to be titled the “Queen of the Missions.”
Visitors to the Santa Barbara Mission can explore the church as well as the other mission buildings and their associated historic structures. Among these are the original cemetery and mausoleum, ruins of the mission’s extensive aqueduct system, several tanning vats, and 10 acres of landscaped gardens. A museum, guided tours, and an archive-library all help educate curious visitors, school groups, and scholars alike.
Before the Spanish arrived in Northern California, numerous American Indian tribes populated the west coast. The Spanish originally established the Santa Barbara Mission to make contact with the Chumash people—California natives who lived along the coast between Malibu and San Luis Obispo. The Chumash were skilled artisans, hunters, gatherers, and seafarers, but had no formal agricultural system. When Padre Fermín de Francisco de Lasuén first started the Santa Barbara mission in 1786, he aimed to bring both religious and sustainable farming practices to the native population.
Constructed by 1787, the first mission church at Santa Barbara was of logs with a thatched grass roof. It was rudimentary and soon required replacement in 1789. As the mission grew, so did the scale and quality of its church building. The church that dated from 1794 was constructed from adobe and tile. The fourth and present church was conceived after the great earthquake of 1812 completely ruined the previous adobe version. In 1815 construction of the grand new church began. Converted natives accomplished most of the labor under the guidance of master stonemason Antonio Ramirez. The new stone church was essentially complete by 1820, and its classical-inspired façade was one of the finest works of architecture in California at the time.
The church was immense at 179 feet long and 38 feet wide (its interior contained six chapels.) The main walls were made of local sandstone and the exterior had heavy buttresses for support. Two symmetrical towers adorned the façade along with classical elements such as Ionic pilasters, an entablature, and pediment. In addition to the church, the Santa Barbara Mission also consisted of housing for the priests, workshop space, storehouses, and hundreds of small adobe huts for native housing.
Throughout the early 1800s, life at the mission revolved around agricultural pursuits as well as religion. Thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, mules and horses thrived on the mission’s land. The Franciscans and converted tribes-people tended crops of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, oranges, and olives. As early as 1807, an impressive aqueduct system was implemented that included a dam across the nearby Pedregoso creek. Water was diverted into a large settling tank for filtration and then collected in a stonewalled reservoir 500 feet from the mission church. A fountain and a long laundry trough sprang from the reservoir by 1808. The fountain and reservoir are still intact just outside the church today.
In 1834, after Mexico achieved independence, new law dictated the secularization of the missions, including the one at Santa Barbara. For the other 20 Spanish missions, secularization led to division of land, abandonment of buildings and ultimately disrepair and severe ruin. The Santa Barbara Mission, however, managed to escape this type of neglect and decay. Although its buildings and lands were sold, the Franciscan friars were allowed to stay and occupy the mission. It soon became the Franciscan capital of California, and in 1842, California's first bishop arrived at the site to establish the seat of his diocese. By 1853, the church had founded a Franciscan missionary college, and while the other 20 missions languished in various states of abandonment, the Santa Barbara mission thrived. In 1865, President Lincoln returned the mission’s buildings and 283 acres of its land to the Catholic Church. While several of its buildings had been altered over the years, the mission church itself remained essentially the same as the day it was constructed.
The church survived remarkably intact until tragedy struck in 1925 when a violent earthquake shook southern California. The church suffered severe damage including the complete collapse of the eastern tower. Interior fixtures, furnishings and art were mangled by falling stone from the church’s own walls. Luckily, the building’s seven massive buttresses held fast, and much of the exterior remained standing. Since the church had been carefully documented, a complete restoration was possible. The entire building had been reconstructed, using mostly original stone, by 1927. The church sustained only one other major renovation project, when, in 1950, the settling of the building caused dangerous cracking in the towers. The damage required the dismantling of entire façade, including the two towers, and its reconstruction on new, solid foundations.
THE MISSION TODAY
Over 200 years after its construction, the church is still home to an active parish, as well as a working community of Franciscan friars. The current mission property now houses a retreat center and museum and displays its historic cemetery, gardens, and aqueduct system/fountain for visitors.
In addition to its nationally landmarked architecture, the mission is a major repository of historic records, art and objects from all eras of California history. The Spanish altar is original and the Stations of the Cross came from Mexico in 1797. Hundreds of other religious and secular objects, statuary, paintings, and memorabilia remain in the church’s collection. Many of these are on display within the church itself, or interpreted for visitors in the Santa Barbara Mission’s museum. Self-guided tours are available daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm and docent-led tours occur regularly on weekends. In addition, the mission’s archive-library holds thousands of historic documents pertaining to Santa Barbara’s Native, Spanish and Mexican-era history. For more information visit the archive’s website.