California Missions – Chapel Of Santa Margarita (San Luis Obispo)

One of the ranchos of San Luis Obispo was that of Santa Margarita on the north side of the Sierra Santa Lucia. As far as I know there is no record of the date when the chapel was built, yet it is a most interesting and important structure, even in its present utterly ruined and dilapidated condition. It is almost frontless, altogether roofless, and its interior has been wilfully destroyed within the last few years. And the work of destruction is now (May, 1904) going on, in order that it may be reroofed and converted into a hay barn.

Situated on a knoll not far from the Santa Margarita river, a tiny stream which flows down from the Sierra Santa Lucia, it has the charm of close proximity to flowing water — a rarity in some parts of California. It is built northeast and southwest, with its front to the southwest. In order to get out the stones of which the interior division walls were made, and which have been deliberately pulled down, the front was recently almost entirely destroyed. So no picture can be presented of its fachada. It had an exquisite and rare outlook. Immediately before the door-way the grassy fields led the eye to the foothills and then the higher slopes of the Santa Lucia, where dense forests seem to exist. All around are live oaks, white and black oaks, sycamores and pines in abundance, and the flow of water could be utilized for irrigation and display in a fountain.

It originally consisted of a chapel about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide, and eight rooms. The chapel was at the southwest end. The whole building is 120 feet long and 20 feet wide. The walls are about three feet thick, and built of large pieces of rough sandstone and red bricks, all cemented strongly together with a white cement that is still hard and tenacious. It is possible there was no fachada to the chapel at the southwest end, for a well-built elliptical arched doorway still remains on the southeast side, which, most probably, was the main entrance. If this be so, then doubtless a window existed on the end, as the only other place pierced for a window is to the left of this doorway. Here the window-frame work still remains. It is of singular construction. Outside it appears to be square. Inside it is seen that this square part is a very thin portion of the wall, a kind of outer shell, the inside of which is beautifully arched and well built.

All the windows have this peculiar characteristic.

About midway in the remaining part of the building, on each side, is an elliptical arched doorway, and at the extreme southeastern corner is another, thus giving three doorway entrances to the residence portion of the structure. From the ruins of the partition walls it is easy to assume that there were eight rooms of about equal size, counting the halls as rooms. If this assumption be correct, then the windows would so tally as to give one window to a room, leaving out those that had a doorway entrance.

The question now arises : was this the only Mission building at Santa Margarita?

No! for near by are three old adobe houses, all recently renovated out of all resemblance to their original condition, and all roofed with red Mission tiles. These were built in the early days. The memory of the oldest Mexican in-habitants of the present-day Santa Margarita remembers them in childhood’s happy years, so it is not unreasonable to assume that they were a part of the Mission buildings.

Here, then, is explanation enough for the assumption of a large Indian population on this ranch, which led the neighboring padres to establish a chapel for their christianization and civilization. Undoubtedly in its aboriginal days there was a large Indian population, for there were all the essentials in abundance. Game of every kind — deer, antelope, rabbits, squirrels, bear, ducks, geese, doves, and quail — yet abound ; roots of every edible kind and more acorns than in any other equal area in the State. A never failing flow of mountain water and innumerable springs, as well as a climate at once warm and yet bracing, for here on the northern slopes of the Santa Lucia, frost is not uncommon.

What more natural, then, than that the padres should seek a closer contact with these large masses of unsaved souls, and diligently work to bring them into the bosom of the Church!