The California missions were established by the Spanish between 1769 and 1833. There were 21 religious-based outposts, or missions founded by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order. Present day, 19 are still Catholic churches, and two are California State Parks. They stretch 650 miles from San Diego to Sonoma, CA. More or less 30 miles apart, they were built to be about a “days ride” from each other.
Even though there are many similarities, such as red tile roofs, whitewashed walls, bell towers, and more, each mission has its own unique characteristics, personality, and local cultural features.
I have the pleasure of living near the Santa Barbara mission and it is a beautiful location. If you find yourself driving up Highway 101, it is well worth a visit. Located on a gentle hill between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, the mission is home to beautiful rose gardens, a chapel, cemetery, Franciscan Friary, retreat house, museum, gift shop and more. This mission has an aqueduct system built over 200 years that is still partially used by the City of Santa Barbara! Because it is an active Catholic church, it serves as a parish church for the community.
Santa Barbara Mission is nicknamed the “Queen of the Mission” and she is truly royal in appearance and bearing. She was founded in 1786, and has served the local population since that time. In 1925, an earthquake destroyed her, but she was rebuilt to her former glory. Santa Barbara Mission has twin bell towers with a Doric facade, tons of carved wood and terra cotta. The grounds are lushly developed with flowers, bushes, trees and a grand 138-year old Moreton Bay Fig towering over the cemetery.
Of particular interest to me is the cemetery, and I always make a point to visit there. It is a beautiful, peaceful walled area adjacent to the Mission. The cemetery was added in 1789; prior to that, the dead were interred under the floor of the existing church! A hidden plaque commemorates Juana Maria of “Island of the Blue Dolphins” fame. Also known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, she was the last surviving member of the Nicoleno tribe. She was accidentally left behind when a search party came to relocate the tribe to the mainland. Although people knew of her existence, no one brought her to Santa Barbara until 1853. She only lasted seven weeks on the mainland before dying of dysentery. I think about her often and wonder what those 20+ years of isolation must have been like.
There are events happening year round in Santa Barbara; the weather is very mild and cool year round. Two notable Santa Barbara Mission events are I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival in May (hundreds of artists create large, colorful chalk paintings on the grounds), and Old Spanish Days Fiesta (a traditional city celebration that opens on the steps of the Mission, it features flamenco and folklorico dancers, followed by a lively parade down State Street). Both are unique and dazzling events!
Santa Barbara Mission holds a special place not in my heart, but the hearts of anyone who is fortunate enough to visit. If you ever need more information, the links below will be helpful. Please come and enjoy this gem of a California Mission!
***** Due to COVID-19, many of the California Missions are not open at this time. Please check before making plans!