Mission Santa Barbara


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Santa Barbara

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Tenth Mission
Date Dedicated: April, 1782
Date Founded: December 4, 1786
Founder: Father Fermin Lasuen
Named for: Saint Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara
2201 Laguna Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93105

Contact Information:
(805)682-4149 telephone



Santa Barbara, like San Diego and Monterey, was listed on the Spanish maps of California long before the arrival of the Franciscans. It had been so named by Sebastian Vizcaíño some 60 years after its discovery by Cabrillo in 1542. From the time of the first march of the Portolá expedition, it had been warmly regarded as a likely spot for mission settlement.

The padres, however, were 13 years in California before an opportunity for founding a mission at Santa Barbara occurred. By then, Governor Felipe de Neve was their arch enemy, who openly preferred civil colonists to mission neophytes. Nevertheless, he had agreed at a meeting in San Gabriel to allow the fathers to place a mission at San Buenaventura and at Santa Barbara, although his own interest was in the new presidio he planned to establish on the latter site. It was agreed that all three establishments would be instituted by one expedition. The padres and their military escort started out from San Gabriel in the spring of 1782, but circumstances prevented the governor from participating in the founding of San Buenaventura.

When the governor finally met the expedition at Santa Barbara, the new presidio was quickly established with Father Serra an eager participant in preparing the military chapel. After this had been completed and the governor did not make a move toward the creation of the projected mission, Fr. Junípero approached de Neve and asked him when he intended to order the work on the mission. The governor replied that Santa Barbara could wait until the Franciscans were willing to follow the new Reglamento, which had been ignored at San Buenaventura. In their hearts each probably knew that the other would never give in and since the governor had clearly won the field at Santa Barbara, there was nothing for the defeated padre to do but return to his own mission at Carmel.

It was five years before the Father Presidente received word that a mission would at last be placed at Santa Barbara. By that time, de Neve was gone and his place had been taken by the former governor, Pedro Fages. Some years before, Fr. Serra had made the long trip to Mexico in order to secure Fages' removal and it must have been a discouraging experience for the aging padre to learn that his former enemy had returned. The old father did not survive Fages' appointment for long, as he passed away on August 28, 1784, leaving the burden of mission problems to be shouldered by the able and willing Father Lasuén.

The administration of Father Fermín Lasuén has often been called the "golden Age" of California's mission system. Although this period extended considerably beyond the 18 years of Fr. Lasuén's presidency, it was his constructive energy and executive ability that set the pattern for prosperity.

Establishment of Mission Santa Barbara

The "Queen of the Missions". On a spring day in 1782 the Padre Presidente of the California Missions, Father Junípero Serra, and the Spanish Governor de Neve founded (as Serra supposed) the presidio and mission of Santa Barbara. Today the mission archives preserve the record book of the mission which the earnest padre carefully started on that day. But the arbitrary governor would not allow the actual establishment of the mission. A frustrated Father Serra retired to Carmel, where he died two years later on August 28, 1784. Father Fermin Lasuén, one of the missionaries who had arrived with Serra at San Diego, became the new Padre Presidente and the actual founder of Mission Santa Barbara, December 4, 1786.

Santa Barbara was the first mission founded by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, Father Serra's successor as President of the California missions. Although Father Serra dedicated the site of the Santa Barbara presidio (fort) in April of 1782, he did not have permission at that time to found a mission in Santa Barbara. The Governor at that time, Filipe de Neve, was jealous of the power he believed the Franciscans gained with each new mission. Through his superior, the Viceroy in Mexico, he was able to delay the necessary funding for new missions.

Sadly, Father Serra died just one month after the new Governor told him that permission was granted to found his longed for mission in Santa Barbara. It was Father Lasuen who traveled to Santa Barbara and selected the mission site. It was one and a half miles northeast of the Presidio (fort) in a hilly area called "rocky mound" with a majestic view of the valley and channel.

Mission Santa Barbara was the tenth of the California missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans. It was established on the Feast of St. Barbara, Dec 4, 1786. Padre Junipero Serra, who founded the first nine missions, had died 2 years earlier. Serra had planned to build this mission, raising the cross at the presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782. It was Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, his successor, who raised the cross here and placed Padre Antonio Paterna, a companion of Serra, in charge. Paterna put up the first buildings and made the first converts.

Mission Life

Santa Barbara became an active mission on December 4, 1786, and was the first to be established by Fr. Lasuén. Launched on the threshold of the prosperous years, the mission enjoyed singular good fortune from the very beginning. Its first permanent church, finished in 1789, was a well-constructed adobe with a red tile roof. Within five years, the church was too small for the increasing mission population and a larger edifice was built. This structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the existing stone church was begun shortly thereafter. Completed in 1820, it remained intact for 105 years. In 1925, an earthquake shook the building so severely that restoration required more than two years to complete.

The design on the facade of Santa Barbara's church, strongly resembling an ancient Latin temple, was inspired by one of the buildings in Rome of the pre-Christian era. One of the Franciscans had brought from Spain a reprint of a book on architecture, originally published 27 years before the birth of Christ by the Roman architect, Vitruvio Polion.

The Indians of the Santa Barbara region found the mission system much to their liking. Shortly after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the mission had more than 1,700 neophytes living in some 250 adobe houses. They were, like those at Ventura, a more adaptable and energetic tribe than any with whom the padres had previously dealt. With the ready assistance of their neophytes, the Franciscans soon made the mission self-sustaining. Part of their industry, a large stone reservoir, is still an active unit in the Santa Barbara city water supply system.

In 1818, one of the padres at the mission was warned of the approach of the French pirate, Bouchard. He armed and drilled 150 of his Indian neophytes in preparation for the expected attack. With the aid of these colorful reinforcements, the presidio guard was able to impress the usually reckless Bouchard, and the pirate sailed out of the harbor without venturing to attack the settlement. This was, however, the last instance of cooperation between the Indians and the military.

News of the Mexican revolt arrived in 1822 and from that time onward the Franciscan fathers had increasing difficulties with the presidio. One of the causes of the friction had little to do with the contemporary problems, but was deeply rooted in the past. For more than 200 years, those who had been born in the Americas had harbored a smoldering antagonism toward the Spanish-born. This resulted from the fact that the Spanish kings, feeling that Spaniards would be more loyal than colonials, had always sent from Spain the officers who occupied positions of authority. The Spanish-American "creoles," no matter how wealthy or influential, were kept out of the profitable positions of administration.

After the Mexican revolution, creole resentment was reflected in an active campaign against the Spanish born, and one of the first official pronouncements to reach California was a law ordering all Spaniards under 60 to leave the province. Although the order was never carried out, it added considerably to the problems of the padres, for they were all from Spain. Their authority over the Indians was subjected to attack, and soldiers were encouraged to assume the work of policing the natives. Trouble between the Indians and the military was inevitable.

In the spring of 1824, an Indian uprising against the increasing violence of the soldiers occurred at three missions including Santa Barbara. Here, the Indians broke into the almost forgotten armory and succeeded in overcoming the mission guard. In the struggle, two soldiers were wounded and the Spanish reprisals were so severe that all the Indians who were not caught fled from the area. It was not until more than six months later, after a general pardon for all the Indians had been secured by the Franciscan father presidente, that any of the neophytes returned to the mission.

The first mission buildings were made of logs, with thatch roofs. Later an adobe wing completed the quadrangle with a dormitory, kitchen and storeroom. There were also rows of over 200 houses for the mission natives built next to the mission.

Eventually, construction of a second quadrangle was begun adjacent to the first. Throughout all this construction a succession of larger adobe churches was being built. The largest one, completed in 1794, had six side chapels and was destroyed in the 1812 earthquakes. Then work began on a new stone church that was 161 feet long, 42 feet high, and 27 feet wide. Initially only one tower was included, but in 1833 a second tower was added, making it the only mission with two towers.

The water system at this mission was so extraordinary that parts of it are still used today by the city of Santa Barbara. It was the most elaborate water system of all the missions. Water from a dammed creek in the hills two miles above the mission was carried by a stone aqueduct to a storage basin near the church. There was even a separate branch with a filtration system used for drinking water.

One year before secularization, in 1833, Father Narciso Duran, then president of the California missions, moved his headquarters from Mission San Jose to Mission Santa Barbara. Hence the documents for the entire California mission chain are in the archives here along with a large collection of sheet music from the mission era.

The original buildings were of adobe and unpretentious. As the years passed, there was progress and development. There were three adobe churches here, each larger than the other, before the present church. The third was destroyed by earthquake in 1812. Thereafter the present church was planned. It was finished and dedicated in 1820. The present friary residence was built gradually, first one story, then a second was added. It was not finished until 1870. The beautiful fountain in front of the Mission was built in 1808. The earthquake of June 29, 1925 damaged the Mission Church and friary considerably. Restoration work was completed in 1927 and the towers reinforced in 1953.

Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Chumash inhabited the area from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. They were hunters and gatherers oriented to the sea. They built plank boats (tomols) which were capable of traveling to the Channel Islands. Their religious practices and ceremonies included the creation of elaborate polychrome rock art located in remote caves and rock outcroppings. Chumash villages were autonomous, headed by the hereditary leader. Houses were dome shaped with tules covering a willow frame. Basketry was a major art form as were stone bowls and tools. Chumash manufactures were noted by early explorers as being high in quality. Their skilled handiwork greatly contributed to the Mission's success.

Chumash leaders such as Chief Yanonali became Christians, leading many villagers to join them. Native customs did not die out all together in arts or belief, however. In the 1880's Rafael Solares (pictured in museum room #1 in spiritual leader's garb) was the last Antap (Native spiritual leader) and also the sacristan of Mission Santa Ines and an active Christian leader. Many Chumash descendants still live in the Santa Barbara area today. A number of Indian community groups keep culture alive and provide social, cultural, medical, and preservation programs that benefit the Indian community.

The Franciscans introduced agriculture to the Indians. The principal products of the field were wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas. Orange and olive trees were planted and vines were cultivated. Water was brought from the mountain creeks to irrigate the fields and for domestic use. To impound these waters the Indian Dam was built in 1807, about two miles upstream. The water was led to the Mission by an aqueduct, the water flowing by gravity. The ruins of these, together with a mill, tanning vats, a storage reservoir, and a filter may be seen near the Mission today.

Mission Santa Barbara had cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, mules and horses in great number. In 1809, there were 5,200 head of cattle, and in 1803, 11,221 head of sheep. At the Mission, the Indians made adobes, tiles, shoes, and woolen garments, learned the trades of carpenter and mason, and became herdsmen and farmers. They also leaned to sing and play European instrumental music. Church services were accompanied by an Indian choir and instrumental ensemble of violins, cellos, woodwinds, and brasses rather than an organ.


The great days enjoyed by Santa Barbara were fast coming to an end. The withering effect of secularization soon overtook the settlement, although there were two men destined to save it from the complete destruction that fell upon most of the other missions. In 1833, the Spanish exclusion policy was followed by the introduction of American-born Franciscans. The new governor, José Figueroa, brought with him 10 Zacatecan friars, who were placed in charge of all the missions north of San Antonio. Shortly after this, Father Narcisco Durán, then presidente of the missions, moved his office to Santa Barbara. Here the courageous padre conducted a last struggle to save the mission system. In 1842, Francisco Garcia Diego, first bishop of the Californias, moved his headquarters to the mission at Santa Barbara. The presence of both the bishop and the father presidente saved this mission from complete expropriation until 1846, when both good men died within a month of each other.

At that time, the ever eager Pio Pico rushed in to make a final sale. He was too late, however, for California became a territory of the United States before the buyer could occupy his newly acquired property. Santa Barbara, the Queen of the Missions, thus became the only mission to remain in constant occupation by the Franciscan Order from the day of its founding down to the present time.

The original purpose of the Mission was the christianazation of the Chumash Indians. This was considered accomplished by the 1830's. With no new converts, the Mission's Indian population started to go down. Spain had lost California to Mexico in 1822, and in 1834 the Mission was secularized. Indians were placed under civil jurisdiction not church authority. Civil administration resulted in a deterioration of lifestyle and buildings. Fr. Duran was then appointed administrator in 1839, and in 1843 the Missions were returned to the Franciscans. Two years later the Governor confiscated the lands and in 1846 the Mission was sold. The missionaries were allowed to conduct services in the church (unlike many California Missions which were abandoned or turned into barns). In 1865 the Mission was returned to the Catholic Church by Abraham Lincoln (California having become part of the U.S. in 1848).

Decline and Rebirth

Having been in continuous occupancy, the mission closely resembles its original appearance. This is especially true of the interior where even the rooms which house the mission's museum have been in uninterrupted use for more than 200 years. It is logical that the museum's collection, as the result of these long years of accumulation, should be the best organized and documented. Each room in the museum has a central theme. The music room, as an example, contains an extensive collection of instruments and music manuscripts with most of the latter bearing distinctive hand-lettered square notes. The music from which the Indians were taught to sing has each note of the scale lettered In a different color. Other rooms have Indian exhibits of the pre-mission era such as hollowed stone vessels and ancient tools.

At the back of the old church is the choir loft, in which the Indian neophytes once sang. The beauty of the interior from this height is most impressive. The unusual decorative effects which give the impression of marble are nowhere more striking than here at Santa Barbara. Beautiful candelabra are suspended from the ceiling by ingenious "S" shaped chains. At the point where the chains are fixed into the ceiling, one sees the startling "flash of lightning" design resembling the Aztec Indian motif. It is hard to believe that it's weird, arresting beauty once graced some ancient Roman wall and that its presence on the mission ceiling reflects the debt of some Franciscan padre to Polion's work of 2,000 years before.

An earthquake in 1925 nearly destroyed the beautiful stone church that had survived all these years. An extensive restoration, at the cost of almost $400,000, was completed in 1927. Unfortunately, in 1950 a chemical reaction in the materials used in the restoration weakened the structure. The front of the church then had to be rebuilt, and steel-reinforced concrete now supports the mission that now appears just as it did in the mission's glory days.

When the Mission period was over, the buildings were used for a number of purposes. From 1868 until 1877 the Franciscans conducted a high school and junior college for boys, both for boarders and local students. In 1896, a seminary was opened at the Mission for candidates studying for the priesthood. Until the summer of 1968 the School of Theology for the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara was located in the Mission buildings. The Friars work in various apostolates in the western states. They continue to serve the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico as well as the foreign missions. The Mission church today is used by the Parish of St. Barbara.

When Santa Barbara's Presidio was founded in 1782, in expectation of founding a Mission here, the Spanish soldiers were of varied ethnic backgrounds. Indian tribes of Mexico, Sephardic Jews, and Africans as well as Spaniards were all represented in the ancestry of California's early settlers. Some of those settlers soon intermarried with native Chumash people. There are numerous Santa Barbarans today who trace their ancestry to the Chumash and a Presidio soldier or early settler. When the Americans arrived in 1848, further intermarriage occurred resulting in the diversity of Santa Barbara's heritage reflected in the names and backgrounds of those buried in the Mission cemetery. Early Manila galleons and China clippers brought Asian cultural influence to California as well. Some visible examples of this cultural infusion are the Philippine crucifix and the Chinese silk vestments in the museum Chapel room and the variety of Chinese porcelain alongside the English China, Mexican Majolica and California Indian basketry seen in the kitchen display. The obvious Moorish (African) cultural influences are clearly visible in the architecture of the Mission itself, while the art works that decorate the Mission are primarily from Mexico's rich cultural traditions. Santa Barbara Mission today is a monument to the cultural diversity of California's heritage.