Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church is celebrating its 150th year as a parish this year. Commemorative events began on Sunday, July 16, the feast day of La Señora del Carmen, with a picnic on the church grounds; September 9 saw a special Mass with a sacramental celebration and dinner; and on Saturday, September 30 the parish children, in conjunction with Mount Carmel School, will host an International Food Festival and give tours of the parish grounds and buildings and art work. Also, the “Blessing of the Animals,” normally held October 4 on the feast day of St. Francis, will also be held at 11 am on the school field on September 30.

The celebration culminates on Sunday, October 1 with a 1:30 pm outdoor Mass on the grounds with Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, as the main celebrant. (The 10 am and noon Masses are cancelled.) A sumptuous buffet and musical entertainment follows the Mass, and a hardcover book, a detailed history of the parish and church, is being (has been) published.

Today's church is the third structure to house the faithful of Montecito and dates from 1938. La Señora del Carmen, however, has been looking after the Montecito faithful much longer than that. Her appearance in Montecito coincides with the appearance of the United States in California.

A Catholic Primer

After Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848, the American Catholic Church began taking inventory of its new possessions. In 1852, Santa Barbara Mission had two priests, the Very Reverend Joseph Gonzalez and the Reverend Anthony Jimeno. The Mission had a good stone church measuring 180 feet by 45 feet, St. Francis Xavier at Cieneguita (Modoc Road area near Hollister) had an adobe church measuring 27 feet by 18 feet, and the Presidio had an adobe church measuring 70 feet by 30 feet. The Catholic population totaled 1,500.

One little pocket of the Santa Barbara population, former Presidio soldiers and their families, lived in Montecito. They had been granted small parcels of land in lieu of pay from the financially strapped Mexican government. Most lived along Montecito Creek off East Valley Road, and Sunday church services were a long ride away.

With the advent of the Americans, however, things were about to change. In 1854, Tadeo Amat became Bishop of Monterey and announced he would establish his residency at Santa Barbara. Also in 1854, the Very Reverend Joseph Gonzalez from the Santa Barbara Mission and three Franciscans established the College of Our Lady of Sorrows (Nuestra Señora de Dolores) on the northeast corner of State and Figueroa Streets. In addition, the group started building a church on the southeast corner. Finished in 1855, this church replaced the Presidio Chapel, which was torn down that year.

On December 2, 1855, Bishop Amat arrived in Santa Barbara carrying with him the bones of St. Vibiana. The Santa Barbara faithful gathered at the shore to greet Amat as he disembarked from the Powhattan with the relics of the blessed saint. A grand procession brought them to the Mission where religious services commemorated the historic event.

In the spring of 1856, Bishop Amat removed the new College of Our Lady of Sorrows to the Mission and established Reverend Blas Raho as pastor of Nuestra Señora de Dolores. Amat felt that the Franciscans were too lax on the moral values, or lack thereof, of the parishioners and decided to undertake the edification of the populace himself.

In 1859, however, after feuding with the Franciscans and apparently deciding that the reprobate population of Santa Barbara was beyond salvation, Bishop Amat requested a transfer to Los Angeles. By 1861, he had taken his bones and departed.

Nuestra Señora del Carmen

During Amat’s short tenure in Santa Barbara, another church was founded, that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Montecito. On February 28, 1857, the Bishop laid the cornerstone for the new Catholic Church. Some 200 people attended the event and the Gazette reported that “a most impressive and edifying discourse appropriate to the occasion was delivered by the Bishop.”

Five months later on July 16, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a priest came out to celebrate the Mass even though the church was not yet constructed. Many Santa Barbarans traveled to Montecito to participate in the religious ceremonies and the all-night party afterwards.

The adobe church was completed by 1859, the same year that the land on which it stood was officially deeded to the Church by Victor Juarez and his wife, Maria Domingues. This land was north of East Valley Road between Hot Springs Road and Picacho Lane. The Little Church of the Fathers, as it came to be called, was a simple rectangular adobe with a wooden porch. The church had no permanent pastor; instead, the fathers from the Mission came to perform the religious services.

On July 23, 1877 the church, according to the Daily Press, was consecrated. They reported: “Early in the day High Mass was celebrated by Father Romo, after which feasting and a general good time were indulged in. In the evening a grand ball was given at the residence of one of the citizens. A large number of Protestants went out to witness the festivities, and the crowd was one of the largest that has been seen for some time.”

July 16, the feast day of Our Lady of Carmel, became the event of the year in Montecito and resulted in several days of parties, which included music, festivities, dinners and games that often went on all night. These parties were so wild that the Daily News opined in July of 1897, “It is expected that there will be more than the general run of business in the Justice Courts on Monday morning as a finale.”

Under American influence, adobe structures went out of style. Anyone of substance and refinement wanted a wood-clad house, preferably with gingerbread ornamentation. Even the venerable de la Guerra Adobe fell prey to this notion and covered its ancient adobe walls with clapboard. No wonder then, that the Catholics of Montecito wanted a wooden church. It took many years, but the parishioners finally managed to raise the $800 necessary to build a wooden chapel that was completed in 1898. It, too, was attended from the Mission until 1905 when the Reverend William Lonergan became the first pastor.

The old adobe chapel became a lemon-packing house until the priests objected to its non-religious function and made it a dwelling for the poor. It was eventually sold to a private citizen and remodeled into a home, which a few years later burned to the ground.

Wild parties celebrating La Señora del Carmen, meanwhile, were falling out of favor. When several newspaper stories announced various dances and parties in honor of the blessed saint in July of 1907, Father Schneider, the pastor, announced, “the Catholic parish of Montecito has nothing whatever to do with, but on the contrary is positively opposed to, it.” The church was holding an official celebration the following weekend with a special service and dinner on the church grounds.

The Third Church

When the population of Montecito mushroomed in the early 20th century, the new church became too small for its members, but the parish could not afford to build a new one. Then, in 1936, three sisters, Clara and Mary Cudahy and Elizabeth Cudahy Nelson donated money for construction, and plans went forward to build the present structure. The architects for the project were the firm of Ross Montgomery and William Mullay. Montgomery was no stranger to Santa Barbara or ecclesiastical architecture. He had been called in to help repair the Santa Barbara Mission after the 1925 earthquake, a project that took two years. While this restoration took place, Montgomery also created the A.I.A. award-winning design for St. Anthony’s Chapel and Tower, including the unique re-redos on the wall at the back of the altar. He designed dozens of churches in the Los Angeles area, including St. Cecilia and the Cathedral Chapel of St. Vibiana.

Montgomery chose New Mexico’s missions for the inspiration of his design. Details like the walled forecourt, the flat roof, vigas and latillas in the ceiling, an altar rug woven by a Navajo weaver, and the raised roof over the sanctuary with high windows are all features reminiscent of Spain’s earlier settlements in Nuevo Mexico.

Lockwood de Forest designed the landscaping and, keeping to the spirit of the architecture, placed plants in the forecourt that had been brought to California and cultivated by the early padres. As the parish grew, so did the church. Its most notable additions were a chapel, a school, an auditorium and a parish hall.

150 Years Old

Today, the Parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is in the capable hands of Father Maurice K. O’Mahony and is celebrating its 150th year as a parish. A summer series of celebrations will culminate on October 1 with a 1:30 pm Mass on the grounds with Cardinal Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as the main celebrant. A hardcover book detailing the history of the church has been produced, and music and a buffet supper after Mass will allow parishioners an opportunity to share their memories of this historic institution.

One of these memories is a story told by Maria Herold, director of the Montecito Association History Committee and a Mount Carmel parishioner, about a previous pastor, Father Ozias B. Cook (1952-1978). Father Cook became very frustrated with a thief who was breaking into the poor box. Each day Father would replace the lock and a day or two later, he would find it broken again and the money vanished. Finally, he’d had enough. Knowing that there was a walk space between the interior and exterior walls, Father took a book and flashlight and hid himself one morning at the part of the wall that contained the poor box.

The morning wore into afternoon, the book was half-finished, and still Father sat between the walls. Then he heard it, the distinctive sound of bolt cutters clanging against metal. Summoning his deepest voice, Father intoned, “Thou shalt not steal!!!” A clang and a clatter and running footsteps were heard, and the poor box was never violated again.

Feliz Cumpleanos, Señora del Carmen. May many happy memories be shared.

(Sources: contemporary newspapers; the Huse Journal; “Mission Santa Barbara,” by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M.; the Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Laity Directory; “Ross Gordon Montgomery: The Chronicle of an Architect’s Southern California Experience,” by Jim A. Beardsley; and the files of the Santa Barbara Historical Society and Montecito Association History Committee, with special thanks to Maria Herold for pointing the way.)