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La Purisima Mission and Lompoc Flower Fields

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Picture of La Purisima mission bell Photo of fence and campanile at La Purisima Mission Picture of doorway to La Purisima cemetery yard Picture of garden at La Purisima Mission

In the 18th century, the Pope’s desire to expand his empire by converting the New World’s heathen Indians coincided with the Spanish king’s desire to establish a permanent presence in his California territory. So members of the Franciscan Order of monks originally led by Father Junípero Serra (who was canonized as a saint in 2015) founded 21 missions along the California coast. El Camino Real, the Royal Road, linked them. Today California Route 1 and U.S. Route 101 follow much of that road.

Appropriately, the Franciscans named their missions for saints. A number of California cities, including San Diego (“Saint Didacus”), Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano, and San Luis Obispo (“Saint Louis, Bishop [of Toulouse]”), bear the name of the missions around which they later developed. Serra’s successor Fermín de Lasuén established Misión la Purísima Concepción de María Santísima, the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Mary, in 1787. The eleventh mission in the chain, it “served” the Purisimeño Chumash Indians.

(The Spanish referred to Indian groups by the names of the missions. The Chumash around La Purisima were christened Purisimeño; those who lived near Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo were Barbareño and Obispeño, respectively. The descendants of some mission Indian tribes have recently recovered enough of their extinct languages to reclaim their native names, but the few fragments that remain of the Purisimeños’ language unfortunately do not include what they called themselves. Chumash is a generic term anthropologists and linguists use to describe the Indians of the Central Coast and their family of related languages. No Chumash group called themselves by that name; but at least it’s derived from an actual Chumash term for the people who lived on the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast.) Photograph of Bell Tower at La Purisima Mission Photo of cross at La Purisima Mission Picture of a large tree at La Purisima Mission

An earthquake in 1812 completely destroyed the original La Purisima mission, in what is now the city of Lompoc. Undeterred, the Franciscans rebuilt it at its current site, some two kilometers away. The Franciscans learned an important lesson about building for seismic safety, a major concern for architects in California ever since. The rebuilt mission was a long row rather than the traditional Spanish quadrangle. The revised architecture may have prevailed against further earthquakes, but it couldn’t save the mission.

In 1824, some of the Purisimeños decided they didn’t entirely appreciate the Franciscans’ unsolicited gifts of salvation and civilization. In reaction to the news of soldiers beating Indians at the nearby Santa Inés Mission, they took over La Purisima and held it for over a month before troops arrived to retake it. The increasing exploitation of the Chumash as slave labor for the Spanish and Mexican armies, along with the loss of their culture to the Franciscans and the loss of their people to smallpox and measles, surely contributed to this show of ingratitude. That uprising was the beginning of La Purisima’s demise. Looking out from the colonnade at La Purisima Mission Photo of colonnade at La Purisima Mission

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1822. Twelve years later, the Mexican government “secularized” (i.e., appropriated) all the mission properties and sent the Franciscans back to Spain. Without maintenance the buildings deteriorated rapidly. When the land finally reverted to the Church under American administration, crumbling ruins were all that remained of the mission. The Church sold it all for $1,000 in 1854.
Picture inside La Purisima Mission cemetery yard La Purisima Mission cemetery

Beginning in 1934, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps— one of the agencies the federal government set up to put unemployed people to work during the Depression— reconstructed the mission buildings using historical methods and materials. The effort included hundreds of thousands of adobe bricks, and a similar number of roof and floor tiles, all made by hand.
Photo of the garden at La Purisima Mission Picture of the lavanderia La Purisima Mission Picture of herb garden at La Purisima Mission Courtyard with Bell at La Purisima Mission

La Purisima is probably the most complete and authentic restoration of any of the California missions. The restoration depicts the mission in its heyday, circa 1822. The livestock pens fenced with wooden stakes contain the same varieties of cattle, sheep, and goats the Franciscans (or more likely, their Chumash “neophyte” laborers) raised. Authentic crops, along with medicinal and culinary herbs, grow in the gardens. The cemetery and bell tower adjacent to the church are painted ocher— it was Pepto-Bismol pink when I first visited the mission in 2001— to contrast with the whitewashed church. And the rooms in the adjacent dwellings and work rooms have historically accurate furnishings.

Volunteer docents don period clothes and turn the clock back to 1822 for elementary school students on field trips. (The “social studies” curriculum for the California’s fourth graders has long focused on California history, including when feasible a visit to the nearest mission. Since that’s the only time it’s taught, the educational system effectively ensures that adult Californians are completely ignorant of state history. Those who moved to California after age nine missed it; everyone else will surely have forgotten it before high school.) The docents also offer special “Living History” events to the general public several times a year.

Picture of Lompoc flower fields Photo of Lompoc flower fields Photograph of Lompoc flower fields Picture of Lompoc Valley flower fields in Lompoc Flower fields in the Lompoc Valley, California

Lompoc’s rather odd name is pronounced “Lahm-poke.” It comes from the the Purisimeño Chumash “lompoh,” apparently meaning either “stagnant water” or “in the cheeks.” The local Chamber of Commerce touts Lompoc as the “flower seed capital of the world.” Farmers have planted flowers in the Lompoc Valley surrounding the city since the beginning of the twentieth century. But economic concerns have steadily reduced the flower crop in recent years. Because flowers grow only during the summer, growers have increasingly switched to more lucrative vegetables and wine grapes that grow throughout the year. And the lack of affordable housing in “no-growth” Santa Barbara has encouraged the conversion of agricultural land within commuting distance into housing tracts.

Lompoc may no longer qualify as the “flower seed capital of the world,” but enough flower fields remain to offer a colorful bonus for summertime visitors to La Purisima Mission. The flowers start to bloom in late May and typically reach their peak in late June, when local businesses capitalize on the display with the annual Lompoc Valley Flower Festival. The flowers continue to bloom through August.

I visited the flower fields late on a Sunday afternoon in mid-June. The farm machinery was idle on the side of the road, the throngs of weekend visitors were on their way home, and I had the deserted fields (and the beautiful afternoon light) mostly to myself.

The Lompoc Tourism Business Improvement District has a Web page about the flower fields that includes a driving route map and current information about where flowers are blooming. It also notes that “[i]n recent years, the number of farmers growing flowers has decreased.”

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