Up The Road: La Purísima Mission State Historic Park

Aug 23, 2018

Altar in chapel, Mission La Purísima
Credit Anita Ritenour

The largest mission complex in the state, now situated on 1,000 unspoiled acres just east of Lompoc, Misión de la Concepción Purísima de María Santísima (“Mission of the Immaculate Conception of Most Holy Mary”) once covered some 470 square miles. La Purísima was the 11th in California’s chain of coastal missions when it was built in what is now downtown Lompoc in 1787. Almost all of the original Mission La Purísima was destroyed just before Christmas Day in 1812 by a devastating earthquake and deluge. Another traumatic year was 1824, when rebellious Chumash, angry at their exploitation by soldiers, captured the mission and held it for a month. Ten years later, the mission was essentially abandoned, after secularization.

Now an impressive state historic park and California’s only complete mission complex, the new La Purísima (built between 1813 and 1818) is unusual in its layout. All buildings line up like ducks in a row along El Camino Real, rather than the more traditional arrangement, surrounding an interior courtyard.

Aqueduct, Mission La Purísima
Credit radarxlove

Also unique here is the fine Depression-era restoration work accomplished primarily by the Civilian Conservation Corps under state and national parks supervision. Completely rebuilt from the ground up with handmade adobe bricks, tiles, and dyes essentially identical to the originals, the restored mission come as close to authenticity as well-disciplined architectural imagination allows, from its hand-hewn redwood timbers and doors to artwork.

At La Purísima, where secular life has been emphasized over religious, you’ll get a good feel for the business end of the mission enterprise. Workshops and living quarters, soldiers’ quarters, and the simple cells of the padres offer an unromantic look at the less-than-luxurious mission life. More interesting, though, are the shops where the mission’s work went on: the bakery, the soap and tallow factory, weaving rooms, olive press, and grain mill. The mission’s museum includes an excellent collection of artifacts and historical displays. Wander along remnants of El Camino Real, past the livestock corrals, the cemetery, and the long, narrow church. Inside, notice the abalone shells for holding holy water and the absence of benches; worshippers knelt on the adobe brick floor.

Mission gardens, at one time irrigated by an ingenious water system, include scarecrow-guarded vegetables mixed with flowers and herbs, native plant gardens, even Castilian roses. The old pear orchards and vineyards have been replanted though a few ancient specimens remain. Guided tours of the complex are offered daily, and living history days here can be real fun. But because there are so many kids—studying California history, as they should—if you do come during the school year, try to come at the end of the day, to miss most of the hubbub. All that youthful enthusiasm can make it hard to hear yourself think.

Corridor, Mission La Purísima
Credit radarxlove

Something worth thinking about while exploring La Purísima: What would have happened if mission holdings, all this agricultural and business wealth, had passed into the ownership of the native California families who created these communities, ran these businesses, tended these crops, managed this livestock, and lived here? By Spanish law, mission land and property were to pass to the indigenous population after a period of about ten years, when the locals would become subjects of Spain. In the interim period, the Franciscans were to act as mission administrators who held the land in trust for the native neophytes and other residents. The Franciscans, however, prolonged their control over the missions even after Alta California passed politically from Spain to independent Mexico, and continued to run the missions until they were secularized, beginning in 1833. The transfer of property never occurred.