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March 10, 1861: Mission Santa Barbara

March 10, 2011

mission santa barbara church

Mission Santa Barbara interior; by 1600 Squirrels, on Flickr

Camp 19

Santa Barbara lies on the seashore, and until lately it was isolated from the rest of the world by high mountains. No wagon road or stage route ran into it from without, only mere trails or paths for horses over the mountains. For a few years they had had a mail once in two weeks by steamer from San Francisco—two mails per month was the only news of the world outside. But the Overland has been working the road—or the county has—and will run this way after the first of April. Here is a village of about 1,200 inhabitants. A wealthy Mission formerly existed here, but like all the rest, is now poor after the robbery by the Mexican Government. I have not seen before in America, except at Panama, such extensive ruins.

moorish fountain

Mission Santa Barbara exterior; by 1600 Squirrels, on Flickr

The Mission was founded about the time of the American Revolution—the locality was beautiful, water good and abundant. A fine church and ecclesiastical buildings were built and a town sprang up around. The slope beneath was all irrigated and under high cultivation—vineyards, gardens, fields, fountains, once embellished that lovely slope. Now all is changed. The church is in good preservation, with the monastery alongside—all else is ruined.

It was with a feeling of much sadness that I rode through the old town. Here were whole streets of buildings, built of adobes, their roofs gone, their walls tumbling, squirrels burrowing in them—all now desolate, ruined, deserted. Grass grows in the old streets and cattle feed in the gardens. Extensive yards (corrals) built with stone walls, high and solid, stand without cattle. The old threshing floor is ruined, the weeds growing over its old pavement. The palm trees are dead, and the olive and fig trees are dilapidated and broken.

We went into the church—a fine old building, about 150 feet long (inside), 30 wide, and 40 high, with two towers, and a monastery, sacristy, etc., 250 feet long at one side, with long corridors and stone pillars and small windows and tile roofs. The interior of the church was striking and picturesque. Its walls were painted by the Indians who built it. The cornice and ornaments on the ceiling were picturesque indeed—the colors bright and the designs a sort of cross between arabesques, Greek cornice, and Indian designs, yet the effect was pretty. The light streamed in through the small windows in the thick walls, lighting up the room. The floor was of cement. The sides and ceiling were plastered with the usual accompaniment of old pictures, shrines, images, altar, etc. The pictures were dingy with age, the tinsel and gilt of the images dull and tarnished by time and neglect. Some of the pictures were of considerable merit; such were two, one of the Crucifixion and another of the Conception.

On either side of the door, beneath the choir, were two old Mexican paintings: one of martyrs calm and resigned in fire; the other, the damned in hell. The latter showed a lurid furnace of fire, the victims, held in by iron bars, tormented by devils of every kind. In front was the drunkard with empty glass in his hand, a devil with the head of a hog pouring liquid fire upon him from a bottle. The gambler, ready to clutch the money and the cards, was held back by a demon no less ugly. An old bald-headed man stood with a fighting-cock in his hand, but tormented now. A woman had a serpent twined about her and feeding upon her breast, another was stung by scorpions.

Although the picture attracted the attention and imagination, it had none of the merits of Rubens’ “Descent of the Damned.” The victims had not that expression of remorse and anguish which he could paint so well, nor the demons that fiendish diabolical expression he conceived and expressed.

The same was true of another picture of Judgment Day, the separation of the just from the unjust—an elaborate work of the imagination, but not good as a work of art. Much better was a picture of the Virgin with broken scales of justice in her hand, an angel on each side pointing and directing the penitents at her feet to her look and mercy.

There were old tombs beneath the church, and a churchyard by the side. A few monks still occupy the place and preserve the church and monastery from utter ruin. They were kind to us. I got much information from the old padre, nearly seventy years old, a fine old benevolent-looking man, who had known the Mission in the days of its prosperity and who could tell of wildernesses reclaimed and works of art erected, of savages converted and taught the arts of civilized life, and of heathen embracing the gospel. One of the monks, an Irishman, with the strongest Celtic features, showed us through the building, took us up into the towers, where we had a good view of the Mission and its ruins, the scene of its former greatness and present desolation.

Up the canyon two or three miles a strong cement dam had been built, whence the water was brought down to the Mission in an aqueduct made of stone and cement, still in good repair. Near the Mission it flows into two large tanks or cisterns, reservoirs I ought to call them, built of masonry and cement, substantial and fine. These fed a mill where grain was ground, and ran in pipes to supply the fountains in front of the church and in the gardens, and thence to irrigate the cultivated slope beneath. But all now is in ruin—the fountains dry, the pipes broken, weeds growing in the cisterns and basins. The bears, from whose mouths the water flowed, are broken, and weeds and squirrels are again striving to obtain mastery as in years long before.

I find it hard to realize that I am in America—in the United States, the young and vigorous republic as we call her—when I see these ruins. They carry me back again to the Old World with its decline and decay, with its histories of war and blood and strife and desolation, with its conflict of religions and races.

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