The Golden State's poet laureate, John Steven McGroarty, once wrote that "the story of the conception, foundation, the rise and fall of the Franciscan missionary establishments in California is at once the most unique, colorful and romantic of stories in the annals of human history, and one of the most important."
The mission named for San Buenaventura was among the earliest frontier outposts envisioned for El Camino Real. It was to be located near the entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel, which Fray Junípero Serra felt was better suited than San Diego, Santa Barbara or Monterey "or any other place we have so far discovered."
Just nine days after the inauguration of San Carlos Borromeo, the Franciscan Presidente spoke hopefully about the foundation earmarked to be the "third mission in New California." For a host of reasons, however, another dozen years passed before Serra's dreams could be realized.
Finally, on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782, the mission dedicated to el Glorioso Obispo-Cardenal Seráfico de Iglesia, San Buenaventura, was formally begun, at a place initially designated as Asunción de Nuestra Senora or La Asumpta. It was a fortunate location, indeed, for at that time the Santa Barbara Channel was the most densely-populated coastal area south of San Francisco. Serra had earlier observed that the countryside was "dotted with great numbers of well-organized pueblos."
The relationship between the friars and the neophytes was regulated by a decree issued in 1773, from Viceroy Antonio Maria Bucareli which directed that "the government, control and education of the baptized Indians should belong exclusively to the missionaries." The Bucareli directive further stipulated that the supervision was to be carried out "in all economic affairs as would a father of a family regarding the care of his household, and the education and correction of his children."
Hence it came about from the earliest days of European presence at San Buenaventura that the Christianized Indians and those preparing to embrace the Catholic faith were totally subject to the friars in all spiritualities and temporalities. In the exercise of their administrative duties, the friars received whatever aid and protection was needed from the military garrison attached to Santa Barbara Presidio.
The main objective of the friars at San Buenaventura and elsewhere was always the salvation of souls through Christian indoctrination and practice. They realized that however time-consuming and onerous the economic aspect of the missions were, such burdens were an absolutely vital part of their overall apostolate.
The Spanish government was quick to understand that the best means for the Indians to receive both a Christian and Hispanic social, political and economic training was one which encompassed all aspects of daily living. Thus the friars became, in effect, both apostles of the Church and agents of the state. The Christianized Indians, for their part, became practical Christians and useful citizens of the commonwealth.
The first baptism at San Buenaventura was administered by Fray Pedro Benito Cambon on April 27, 1782, to Jose Crescensio, the infant son of Eugenio Valdez and Sebastiana Quintexa. Nine months later, the sacrament was conferred upon the first native of the region, Domingo Jose, a 10-year-old boy from the Rancheria de Valesque. By the end of 1785, there were 133 entries recorded in the Baptismal Register.
On August 30, 1782, Fray Francisco Dumetz performed the first marriage, uniting Alejandro de la Cruz and Maria Conception Monteil. Thirty-six adobe buildings were built at the mission in 1804, and another 29 the following year. Other crude structures were added soon after, including a tannery and granary.
George Vancouver visited the ninth and last of Fray Serra's missionary outposts in 1793. The English navigator was impressed with its well-mannered Indians, the orchards of apples, peaches, plums and pomegranates, its vineyards, vegetables and herds of cattle.
In a report for 1806, the resident friar at San Buenaventura reported that "our flock continues to grow steadily. A few years ago there were only slightly more than 700 neophytes at the Mission, but at the close of 1805 they numbered 1,141. At present, 84 others are also under instruction." Except for a three-month period after the disastrous earthquake of 1812, when the friars moved the neophyte population to safer regions, San Buenaventura Mission has been in constant use since its foundation.
The mission attained the pinnacle of its development in 1816, when the neophyte population reached 1,328 souls. In the years following 1820, a decline set in which continued without abatement until the baneful blight of secularization totally ruined the once-flourishing establishment.
On May 31, 1819, a small band of Mojave Indians arrived at the mission, much to the bewilderment of the local natives. A scuffle ensued and trigger-happy soldiers shot and killed 10 of the visitors. Two soldiers and one neophyte from San Buenaventura were also fatally injured.
In a report for 1822, Fray José Seflan enumerated the material holdings of the mission and noted that wheat, barley, maize and kidney beans had been planted. He pointed out that those crops, together with the weekly slaughter of 40 or more head of cattle, were sufficient to sustain the Indians and whites attached to the mission.
Prior to 1834, there were 3,924 baptisms, 1,107 marriages and 3,216 deaths recorded in the register books. At the height of its service, there were 1,297 Indians living in or attached to San Buenaventura. From 1812 to 1823, the Presidente of the California Missions, Fray Jose Seflan, made his residence at San Buenaventura.
Eugene Duflot de Mofras, a youthful attaché at the French Embassy in Mexico City, visited San Buenaventura in 1842. He described the mission's location as "very beautiful," but noted that the buildings were in "a rather bad condition," some of them occupied by local rancheros.
The initial episcopal visitation occurred in April 1843, when the Bishop of Both Californias, Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno, confirmed 182 persons at San Buenaventura. In November of that year, the mission became the Southland's first canonically established parish, with the appointment of Father José Maria Rosales as resident pastor.
The original mission lands were leased for nine years to Narciso Botello and José Arnaz, on Dec. 1, 1845. Pio Pico compounded that injustice the following June 8, by selling the property to Arnaz, a sale that was invalidated by President Abraham Lincoln on May 23, 1862.
The widely-traveled artist, Henry Miller, visited San Buenaventura in 1856, and found it to be “a quiet village” of about 70 or 80 houses, “inhabited principally by natives and Mexicans." An earthquake did considerable damage the next year by destroying the original roof of the church and totally leveling a number of the remaining structures. Several restoration efforts during the 20th century, however, have brought the mission and parish life and renewed prominence in the city that bears its name.
Though only its historic church remains, San Buenaventura Mission continues to occupy a unique role in the historical annals of Ventura County. It is a living testimony to a spirit of devotion and sacrifice which can be understood only within the context of that divine vocation which called the friars to leave home and kindred on behalf of the aboriginal peoples confided to their spiritual care.
Msgr. Francis Weber, Archivist Emeritus for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was administrator and then pastor at San Buenaventura Mission, 1975-1981.