Santa Barbara, California is a city of whitewashed Spanish style buildings with red tile roofs tucked between the mountains and sea. The palm-lined streets and long stretch of white sandy beach give it an exotic allure. Some call it the American Riviera. No palms lined the beaches and boulevards when the Spanish came, nor were there wooded hillsides. It was simply a barren swath of coastline occupied by the Chumash people, who were hunters and gatherers oriented to the sea.
I’ve come here for a very special occasion, my grandson’s graduation from the prestigious Santa Barbara University. But on this sunny afternoon, I have another destination in mind: a visit to the Old Mission Santa Barbara to discover the city’s past.
I hop onto a tourist trolley down by the Presidio. On the way through the picturesque streets of this little town, the handsome driver tells us that he’s a descendant of the Chumash Indians who occupied this land long before the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1602, a Spanish explorer named Sebastian Vizcaino sailed up the channel between the coast and Channel Islands, and claimed the land in the name of the king of Spain. He gave it the name “Santa Barbara” because it was the Saint’s Feast day.
The tour bus passes by various historical buildings in the old town and heads up the winding road. On the outskirts, a majestic building crowns the hillside, glowing like an opal in the bright California sun. The Queen Mission of all Franciscan missions in California, the tenth mission founded by Padre Junipero Serra, was established December 4, 1786. And though Serra planned the building and raised the cross here, he wouldn’t live to see its completion.
Disembarking from the trolley, I stand in awe as I observe the impressive building with its twin bell towers and the imposing architecture that combines Moorish, Mexican, Chumash Indian and Spanish design.
In the mosaic-paved entryway, a Moorish fountain dating back 200 years burbles with a spray of water. The large basin in front is the lavandaria, where Chumash women washed their clothes. A Chumash artisan carved the crude lion’s head at the front of the lavandaria. Nearby is a botanical garden dedicated to native plants used by the Chumash people.
I climb the steps to the portico and main door and set off on a self-guided tour. Inside, the small, dark rooms contain a colonial art collection of the baroque or neoclassical eras, imported from Mexico and South America that demonstrate the life of the Franciscan monks and the pioneers who lived there alongside the Chumash Indians. Three stone statues depict St. Barbara and the Virtues, carved by a mission Indian who used pictures in books as a guide.
Over time, the original buildings were damaged or destroyed by earthquakes. The present friary was restored then later built after another quake in 1927. The church represents an amazing engineering achievement combining the efforts of the Chumash, Spanish and Mexican artisans. I tour the rooms where the missionaries slept, the kitchen where a meagre menu is shown; little more than beans and rice. In the chapel room are displays of skills taught at the mission including: candlemaking, pottery, weaving and ironwork. Galleons from Manila and China clippers brought Asian culture to the area and some of this reflects in the artifacts and embroidered silk vestments displayed in the chapel museum. The church itself is decorated with Mexican art, some 200 years old.
Passing under a low doorway decorated with skulls, I enter the mission cemetery where Santa Barbara’s culturally diverse early settlers are buried along with approximately 4,000 Indians. When the Presidio was formed in 1783, the Spanish soldiers were of varied ethnic origins including Mexican Indians, Sephardic Jews and Africans. The heritage of Santa Barbara is reflected in the names and backgrounds of those buried in the mission cemetery.
In the tranquil Mission garden, I pause to meditate and try to imagine what life for the Chumash people was like back then. This garden was once a work area where many of the Indians learned trades. Their workshops and living quarters were located in the surrounding quadrangle of buildings. Today, many descendants of the Chumash, such as the driver of the tour trolley, still live in Santa Barbara. Fortunately, their customs didn’t die out and today local native communities provide support for the preservation of their ancient culture.
The Mission’s original purpose was the Christianization of the Chumash, but once Spain lost California to Mexico in 1822, it was secularized although missionaries were allowed to conduct services. Eventually, it was returned to the Catholic Church and used as a school and seminary. Today, it is used by the Parish of Santa Barbara and stands as a monument to the cultural diversity of California’s heritage.
Mass is celebrated daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and noon.
Admission is $4.
2201 Laguna St.
Santa Barbara CA
Santa Barbara Trolley Tours
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER ISLAND
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