The Old Mission Santa Barbara, also known as the Queen of the Missions, was founded on December 4, 1786, the feast day of Saint Barbara, an early Christian saint and martyr who was supposedly locked by her father in a tower to protect her from the outside world, and who was later beheaded by him when he found out that she was following the Christian Faith.
Located between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, at a short drive from Santa Barbara’s town area, and with lovely views of the city and the ocean, the Old Mission Santa Barbara was the first mission founded by Fray Fermín Lasuén, a Franciscan missionary who went on to found eight more missions during his lifetime, and the tenth of twenty-one missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans in California. Its original purpose was to serve to the religious conversion of the Chumash people, a Native American people who historically inhabited the central and southern coastal regions of California.
From an architectural standpoint, the Mission is usually considered the finest and most exquisite of all the 21 California mission churches, and the only one to survive unaltered and in a very good condition at the beginning of the 20th century.
The history of the construction of the Mission is closely related to the earthquakes that have hit Santa Barbara during the years. Before the great Santa Barbara Earthquake on December 21, 1812, the missionaries built three different chapels, each of them larger than the previous one. These were unpretentious buildings made of adobe that were destroyed by the earthquake. This event led to the construction of the current building, whose completion took place in 1820. In June 29, 1925, however, a new earthquake damaged the Mission’s towers during a chapel service. The towers had to be restored, a process that finished in 1927, and were later reinforced in 1953.
The inside of the church has remained basically the same since 1820, without serious alterations in its design. This includes different elements of the Mission’s water system. Under the direction of Franciscan missionaries, Chumash Indians built aqueducts, two reservoirs, a filter house, a hydro-powered gristmill, among other things, some of which remain functional today. The larger reservoir, for instance, was a functioning component of the City’s water system until 1993, and the original fountain and the lavadero are intact yet.
Likewise, after the end of the the Mission period, the buildings were also employed for educational purposes. Between 1868 and 1877, the Franciscan friars conducted a high school and a junior college for laymen in the Mission’s buildings, which made it the first institution of higher education in Santa Barbara.
All this emphasizes the importance of the Mission as a landmark of great historical and architectural value for the Santa Barbara area and even California as a whole. It appears for this reason in the the U.S. National Historic Landmark since October 9, 1960, and in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since October 15, 1966.
The Old Mission Santa Barbara is still home to a community of Franciscan friars. It has its own church, a beautiful colonial one, with a large and active parish to support it, which is reflected in the number of baptisms, marriages, and burials that still take place in it.
But the Mission is perhaps much more than that nowadays. It is a cultural landmark for the city of Santa Barbara. A library, a museum, a cemetery, a mausoleum, and twelve acres of landscaped gardens (La Huerta Historic Gardens) are still either part of the Mission, or closely related to it.
The Santa Barbara Mission-Archive Library (SBMAL), for example, became an independent non-profit educational and historical research institution separate from the Mission, though it still occupies some parts of the original building complex. The SBMAL is devoted to acquire, maintain, and preserve books, maps, photographs, documents, and other kinds of sources having to do with the history of Franciscan missions and Native Peoples in the United States.
The museum is full of artifacts that may be of interest to many types of visitors. It is indeed not only a church building, but also a place to understand the historical development of the city and the whole Santa Barbara area.
La Huerta Historic Gardens also deserve special attention. This space may be seen as a living museum that preserves the botanical heritage of the region, and portrays the history of the agricultural transformations introduced by Spaniards in the Californian landscape. A project initiated in 2001 as an outdoor section of the museum, La Huerta preserves authentic and ancient plants collected during the Mission-Era, and is impeccably maintained and cared by volunteer-gardeners.
The Mission is beautiful at any time of the year. In the summer, one can enjoy the view from the road, look up at it, and take a walk afterwards to enjoy the spectacle provided by the ocean. But it also has a particularly special sparkle during Christmas and Fiesta days.