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La Purísima Mission
The Spanish established Franciscan Catholic missions throughout California during the 18th and early 19th centuries to assist in colonizing the Pacific coast region and to spread their Christian faith to local American Indian tribes. The Spanish not only introduced a new religion to the native peoples, they brought new livestock, fruit, vegetables, farming techniques, and social practices to the area as well. The missions, which were not just churches, but entire settlements, completely changed life in California. Today, visitors can see and experience many of these historic missions throughout California. The La Purísima Mission, a National Historic Landmark, is considered the most fully restored of these Spanish missions and today is a State park.
Father Presidente Fermin de Lasuén founded Misión La Purísima Concepción De María Santísima (Mission of the Immaculate Conception of Most Holy Mary) on December 8, 1787. The first padres assigned to La Purísima were Father Vincente Fuster and Father Joseph Arroita. The two padres organized the construction of temporary buildings at La Purísima and translated the mass and catechism instruction into the native tongue of the local Chumash Indians. Since the mission was more than just a church, construction began on living quarters, workshops, and storage and water systems. As the Spanish baptized the Chumash Indians, they taught them skills that enabled the Indians to help in the development of the mission.
A contemporary report provides some insights into the daily life of the Chumash Indian neophytes at the mission. In 1800, Father Horra, who was formerly at Mission San Miguel, accused the La Purísima Mission fathers of mistreating the Chumash Indians. Governor Borcia, the Spanish governor at the time, investigated, and the padres at La Purísima reported about the lives of the neophytes. They said the neophytes received three meals a day, had permission to gather their own wild foods, and had clothing that was expected to last one year. They lived in their native tule houses for it was not possible to construct permanent houses for them. The Spanish required their labor for no more than five hours per day, taught the Indians how to deal with the soldiers and other people outside of the mission, and punished them if they left the mission without permission. Ultimately, Spanish officials declared the charges against the missionaries unfounded. This report is only from the padres’ view of Indian life at the mission.
Father Payeras requested and was granted permission to rebuild the mission four miles northwest in a small canyon closer to the El Camino Real, California’s main travel route. The padres established La Purísima in its new location on April 23, 1813. Using materials salvaged from the buildings destroyed by the earthquake, construction began immediately. The new site departed from the traditional layout of the California missions, which included a settlement arranged around four sides with an open square. The new mission was constructed in a straight line at the base of a long hill. Completed within 10 years, La Purísima’s new buildings included the padres’ residence, storehouses, workshops, quarters for the soldiers, the mission church, the Indian infirmaries and dormitory, the blacksmith’s quarters, a pottery shop, and the padres’ private kitchen. These buildings are part of the reconstructed La Purísima Mission State Park today.
By 1824, the increasing conflict between the soldiers and the Indians reached a breaking point. After hearing news that soldiers at Santa Inez flogged a La Purísima neophyte, the neophytes took control of the mission’s grounds. Father Ordaz and the soldiers and their families went to Mission Santa Inez, while Father Rodriguez was still able to come and go from La Purísima as he pleased. About a month after the rebellion began, 109 soldiers from the presidio at Monterey arrived to regain control of the mission. A violent fight that lasted only two and half hours left 16 Indians dead and one soldier and two others wounded. Seven Indians suffered execution for their involvement in the rebellion and 12 more punishment to hard labor.
La Purísima Mission never fully recovered after the rebellion, and by 1834, the Mexican officials enforced the order to secularize California’s missions. A civil administrator managed the grounds until Juan Temple of Los Angeles purchased La Purísima Mission for $1,000 in 1845. Ownership of La Purísima Mission subsequently changed hands multiple times until 1933, when its new owner, Union Oil Company, recognized the historic value of the site and donated it to the State of California.
According to Kurt Baer’s Architecture of the California Missions, in 1935, “after years of total neglect, vandalism and despoliation, the mission buildings were not much more than heaps of rubbish. Yet, diligent and patient examination of records and photographs, interviews with early settlers, and archeologists and structural study has made possible the almost complete restoration of the compound as it existed before secularization. Where details of the original were lacking, such as wood carving, in colors, and furnishings, extant examples from other missions, were copied. Even the adobes and the burned bricks were made in the original manner." In the 1930s, through the combined efforts of the County of Santa Barbara, the State of California, the National Park Service, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the buildings and grounds were reconstructed and restored and furnished to their 1820 appearance.
Today, visitors to La Purísima Mission State Historic Park will see 10 of the original buildings fully reconstructed, restored and furnished, including the church, shops, living quarters, and blacksmith shop. The park's buildings, mission gardens, livestock, living history events, and visitor center provides visitors with a glimpse into what life was like on a California mission during the 1820s.