The Story of the Santa Conchita Mission

Located in the heart of the Santa Conchita Valley, the "Royal Mission" sits atop a small hill directly between the massive Don Alessandro and Kiyomi mountain ranges. This is the only mission never abandoned and in continuous use. Weeping willow and low-growing agave frame the unique Greco-Roman facade.

This was the thirteenth mission built in California. It was founded by Padre Ernesto Darza, Padre Junipero Serra's cherished understudy. With cross and sword, these men, along with others like them, gained and dominated the Pacific edge of North America for nearly a century. Their grand adventure was a strategic move, by King Carlos III of Spain, to counter threatening Russian incursions on the California coast. The garb of the missionaries included a gray robe, girded with a knotted cord, sandals, and a wide-brimmed hat for weather protection.

Padres Serra and Darza, along with a cavalcade of priests, provincial officials and their families, muleteers, and pack animals loaded with food, tools and fertilizer, set out from San Fernando in May, 1783, to found this mission. Governor Neve brought up the rear with special troops from the northern presidio. Called "soldados de cuera" (soldiers with leather jackets) to distinguish them from the regular Spanish army, these troops were tough, obedient, resolute and active. They were among the best horsemen in the world. Their defensive equipment included the cuera, a jerkin made of six or seven thickness of dressed deerskin, impervious to Indian arrows except at very short range, and an "adarga," a shield made of two thickness of raw bull's hide, worn on the left arm. For offensive weapons, they carried a lance, managed from horseback with great dexterity, a broad sword, and a short musket in a leather case. This equipment was so much more effective than Indian bows and arrows. Three soldiers were a match for fifty Indians.

They headed for a friendly Chumash village of about 500 inhabitants. On arrival, Darza gave an eloquent sermon and said Mass. Then they began building a chapel, dwellings and a stockade. The entire Santa Conchita Valley channel area had twenty-two villages with an Indian population of 10,000. The purpose of the missionaries was the Christianize and civilize the Indians, who were taught to pray, to worship, to work, and to follow the Spanish way of life. Under the direction of Spanish overseers, the Indians did most of the construction work on the mission. Other work comprised of farming, ranching, and such trades as carpentry, blacksmithing, weaving, tailoring, leather products, etc. Conversion was voluntary but once the Indians became Christians, they were required by Spanish law to reside at the missions.

The mission prospered. Pleasant climate, good soil and a well-designed irrigation system helped Santa Conchita become a center for growing apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates, grapes, olives, and figs. Grain flourished. Crude buildings were topped with beams, topped by reeds, which were covered with mud and thatch. Crevices between the logs were filled by mud and stones. Floors were bare earth and the roofs were made of pressed earth and sacate grass. The residence for missionaries was forty-five feet by twelve feet; and the dimensions of the church were thirty-nine feet by six feet by thirteen feet. In 1791 a new, adobe church was built and fireproof tile roofing installed for the first time.

After the brutal murder of Padre Ernesto Darza, Padre Miguel Tapia took over and, under his direction, a new, bigger adobe church -- one hundred and twenty-three feet by twenty-five feet, with six side chapels -- was completed in 1795, but it was severely damaged in the 1812 earthquake. There was a dormitory, kitchen, storeroom and granary, tannery, pottery and warehouse, plus two hundred and fifty Indian huts, plastered and whitewashed, with doors and movable windows. The large Moorish fountain outside was created in 1817. Its overflow ran into a stone basin where the Indian women did their laundry. The completed water system was so good that parts of it are still in use by the City of Santa Conchita.

Despite the earthquake, the church remained in operation until completion of the new stone church, with its facade of Roman arches. This church is in use today, with the same stone facing, contours and ornamentation as the original. It is one hundred and sixty-one by twnety-seven by forty-two feet high with towers eighty-seven feet high. One tower was built in 1821, and the second was finished in 1832. The mission living quarters were one-story with flat tile roofs (azotea), and the tile floor of the corridor is still to be seen.

Mission Santa Conchita was damaged in a 1927 quake and rebuilt with steel reinforced concrete. The interior has changed little since 1820. The old canvas reredos, statues and paintings are there, and much of the decoration.



1784 - Founded December 2.
1812 - First church destroyed by earthquake.
1815 - Rebuilt.
1837 - Secularized.
1844 - Became parish church.
1845 - Rented by Governor Pio Pico.
1847 - Sold.
1860 - Returned to church.
1955 - Restored.

Prepared by the Santa Conchita Historical Society, 2001

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