Times Past

La Purisima mission reduced to rubble in an instant

Civilian Conservation Corps members rebuilding Mission La Purisima Concepcion in 1935.
Civilian Conservation Corps members rebuilding Mission La Purisima Concepcion in 1935.

Earthquakes have been the fear of Californians for more than 200 years.

By Jan. 1, 1811, Padre Mariano Payèras of Mission La Purisíma Concepción completed an elaborate irrigation system and a new and shorter road to San Luis Obispo by way of Mission Santa Inés in modern-day Solvang.

It is the oldest section of California’s highways for which we have exact measurements for both width and length.

Much of the work of this talented and energetic Franciscan vanished on Dec. 21, 1812 at around 10:30 a.m.

The temblor registered 10 on the Rossi/Forel scale of 10 gradients. The priests, Indians and soldiers rushed outside. This initial temblor was only a foreshock. Fifteen minutes later, a more intense shake caused the mission’s bells to ring. The adobe walls were reduced to rubble.

Despite the horrific destruction, Father Payèras selected a new site for the mission north of the Santa Ynez River, got permission from Franciscan president José Señán and Gov. Arrilaga, and on April 29, 1813, began building a new mission.

In 1815, Payèras’ talents were acknowledged when he succeeded José Señán as Father President of the California Missions.

He visited the Russian settlement at Fort Ross, founded Mission San Rafael, the Assistència at Pala on the slopes of Mount Palomar, and was instrumental in completing La Placita, the plaza church in the pueblo of Los Angeles.

Payèras died of an infected leg in 1823 and is buried at Purisima.

Shortly after his death, a Purísima neophyte was severely flogged by the soldiers at the nearby Mission Santa Inés. This led to an uprising at La Purísima, the largest Indian revolt in the history of the California missions. The La Purísima insurgents allowed Father Blas Ordaz and the Purísima soldiers and their families to go to Mission Santa Inés.

Father Antonio Catarino Rodríguez, suffering from illness and apparently much loved by the Purísima Indians, was allowed to come and go as he pleased. His good relations with the rebels have caused many historians to question the assertion that the Franciscans were disliked by the Chumash. The real villains in causing the revolt appear to be the soldiers at Mission Santa Inés.

Father Rodríguez stayed at the mission until a relief force from Monterey took him to Mission San Luis Obispo. He died here in November 1824 and is buried at the foot of our mission’s altar.

Mission Purisima nearly melted from neglect after the Franciscans left in the 1830s. After several attempts at restoration, the federal government took the mission on as a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s.

The youth of CCC, working under crusty sergeants from the Army, used construction method similar to those of the padres and Indians. Tens of thousands of adobe bricks were made. Roof and floor tiles were fired from molded and dried clay. Tables, chairs, beds, door bolts and hinges were made in the carpenter shop and blacksmith shop.

The reconstructed mission was handed over to the state of California. Since the 1930s, thousands of school students have visited the “Mission Peoples Days” at this “Williamsburg of the West.”

There hasn’t been a full history of Mission La Purisíma since 1932. Michael Hardwick, once the archivist there, is coming to Mission San Luis Obispo on Saturday, Oct. 17. He will give a lively presentation on his new history of our neighboring mission to the south, La Purisíma Concepción. It will be held at 9:30 a.m. in the Mission Hall. The public is invited.


Readers are invited to join me on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. in the Old Mission Cemetery at the new Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge in back of the Pacific Coast Center. We’ll see the last resting places of San Luis Obispo's pioneers including Ah Louis, Josefa Carrillo Dana and her husband, William Godwin Dana, and more recently, Alex Madonna. Please join us for this pre-Halloween treat. It is free and open to readers of this column.