History of La Purísima Concepción

The original site of La Purísima Concepción, founded by Fr. Lasuén on December 8, 1787, is not far from the center of the present town of Lompoc. The Indians of the area were friendly and receptive to the mission system, and a considerable number of neophytes were living on the grounds soon after the mission began. A church building was completed in 1802 and within the following decade herds of livestock numbering in the thousands were developed.

Old picture of Mission La Purisima Concepción

This notable progress was undone by the fateful earthquake of 1812 which caused destruction to so many of the missions, and leveled La Purísima to the ground. The buildings were located quite near the major fault line and violent slipping of the earth masses continued for more than a week. All but the most sturdy equipment was lost or destroyed. The padres and their neophytes did not wish to rebuild on such a violent location and a new site was chosen at a discreet distance. Four months after the earthquake, the mission was re-established where it now stands in the little valley of Los Berros four miles to the north and east.

Hero of the disaster was Father Mariano Payeras, last of the friar-citizens of the Spanish island of Mallorca which had supplied the settlement of California with so many of its great names: Fathers Serra, Palou and Crespi, and Juan Perez, the faithful captain of the packet San Antonio. Father Payeras was born in 1769, the year of the founding of San Diego. He had come to La Purísima in 1803, and there he was destined to die some 20 years later.

Detail of the church window

During his two decades of service Fr. Payeras was presidente of the missions four years, and twice served as prefect. Like the earlier Franciscan, Father Garces, Fr. Payeras loved to march through the unexplored sections of the new territory, visiting Indian rancherias and marking possible locations for future missions. Despite the official prohibition against it, he was friendly to the approach of foreign visitors. After the Napoleonic conquest of Spain cut off trade with the mother country, Fr. Payeras, as prefect, signed the first trade agreement between the California missions and the English. The English signatory, William Hartnell, eventually was to become one of the first prominent citizens of California following its independence and, such is the irony of fate, a leading figure in the secularization of the missions after 1833.

At its new site, La Purísima soon regained its earlier prosperity and it was not until the year following Fr. Payeras’ death, in 1823, that the mission had any further difficulty. At this time, the Indian uprising touched off by a disturbance at Santa Inés, led the Indians at La Purísima to seize the mission.

The Indians then demonstrated how well they had learned the construction trades, which the fathers had so patiently taught them. After driving off the small military guard, they erected a wooden fort and cut holes in the building walls, behind which they mounted a pair of small cannon. Firmly entrenched in their barricade, the Indians held out for more than a month. It was not until a military force of over 100 soldiers arrived from Monterey that the Spanish were able to regain possession. Even then, the surrender of the Indians was accomplished by a padre who convinced the besieged that they had no chance of holding out.

In all, the incident cost the lives of six Spaniards, four of whom were travelers who happened to be at the mission when the uprising occurred. Seventeen of the Indians were killed in the fighting, and four of the captured ringleaders were put to death for their part in killing the travelers.

Once the uprising was suppressed, the mission returned to its accustomed routine. The period of its greatest prosperity had passed, however, for 10 years later it was in the hands of the secular administrator. For a time, the Franciscans continued to occupy their residence building, even though the neophytes had disappeared and the church and other buildings were allowed to tumble into heaps of rubble. The once prosperous rancho was abandoned and, such was its eventual desolation, that the property was offered for sale after it had been returned to the Church.

Old chair and table of the Mission

In 1934, 500 acres of the former mission property were acquired by the County of Santa Barbara and, with the co-operation of the State and the United States National Park Service, a program of restoration was begun. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was located on the spot and the young men began the work of rebuilding. On July 7, 1935, the first adobe brick was laid and construction of the first unit of the monastery, based on painstaking research, was started. The monastery building alone required the molding of 110,000 adobe bricks, 32,000 roof tiles, and 10,000 floor tiles.

Instead of destroying the existing ruins, they were incorporated into the new buildings. As a result, the visitor is able to compare the later cloister columns with the original, and only a careful inspection will reveal the difference. Once the mission structures were completed, the young craftsmen turned to the creation of furniture and everything was made as an exact copy of pieces in other mission museums. The monastery, the church, even the seemingly endless row of rooms that housed the soldiers and some of the neophytes, have been restored to their original condition. La Purísima gives the traveler an excellent opportunity to comprehend the size and scope of a large mission establishment.

Once the adobe structures were restored, workers in the Conservation Corps turned to the re-creation of the mission gardens. They began by rebuilding the intricate water system which collects water from springs located more than a mile above the mission, and leads it through the gardens and on to the grain fields below. On its course, the water is first introduced into a charming fountain. From there it flows into a broad circular pool whose sloping stone banks formed the laundry where the Indian women did the mission wash. After passing through a huge settling pool, the water continues on to irrigate the fields.

The gardens represent a great deal of research by eminent horticulturists, headed by Mr. E. D. Rowe of Lompoc. Every shrub and tree in the garden was known to the mission padres and could have existed here at the time the mission was in its active state. Today, this garden is considered the finest collection of early California flora in existence and is well worth the visitor’s time and study.

The vaste and rich garden inside Mission La Purisima Concepción

La Purísima is now a State Historic Park operated by the Division of Beaches and Parks, with an area now encompassing 967 acres. A remarkable docent program welcomes visitors of today. The docents, all volunteers, assume the roles of mission inhabitants of the 1820s. In historic dress, they conduct tours, spin and weave wool, produce mission period iron implements in the blacksmith shop and much more including an outreach program.