If travelers know the unincorporated community of Santa Ysabel at all, it's probably because they passed the tiny town of 1200 people on the way to Julian during apple harvest season.
But Santa Ysabel was once an important area for the Spanish padres, and the missionaries set on bringing Christianity to the local Native Americans. The present day site of the former Indian mission of Santa Ysabel is located just outside the boundaries of the current Santa Ysabel Reservation.
Santa Ysabel was an asistencia (sub-mission) of Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. Its remote location served those who lived too far from San Diego, and those who needed a stopover on the way.
The site of the original chapel (built 1818) has been preserved, including a portion of the floor which was uncovered in the 1960s. It's estimated that over 500 Native Americans were baptized on this floor, an unusually high conversion rate for the California missions.
The first structures of the outpost (the chapel, some workshops, a barn) essentially fell apart under the elements during the rancho period, after the secularization of the missions. Only the cemetery remained.
When the mission property was subsequently turned over to the Roman Catholic Church, a new Mission Revival Style chapel was built in 1924 as Saint John the Baptist Church.
The mission is still open today as a tourist attraction (with a museum and gift shop)...
...but also an active place of worship, with regular services and confessions scheduled.
Services reportedly have been held here on this site in one form or another continuously since 1818...
...even during the secularization, when priestly visits more or less ceased...
...and even after the adobe buildings eroded and the roofs caved in.
Although it has been rebuilt, the mission site is still missing something: its bells. Originally fabricated in 1723 and 1767, they were original to the first chapel, and are probably the oldest bells in California. The bells mysteriously disappeared in 1926 (probably taken by thieves hoping to cash in on precious metals), and have been known as the "lost bells" ever since. A piece of one of the bells was returned to the church in 1959, and historians speculate that whatever remains of the bells is probably also in pieces.
But the mission has not given up hope that the bells – in whatever shape they're in – will be returned, someday, somehow.
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Photo Essay: Past the Mission
Photo Essay: On a Mission in the Santa Ynez Valley