For the first time since Old Mission Santa Barbara was founded by Franciscan missionaries from Spain in 1786, there will be a layperson officially in charge of the landmark’s administrative affairs, as Monica Orozco assumed her new duties as executive director on August 1. A Santa Barbara native with a PhD in history from UCSB, Orozco has been the director of the Mission Archive Library for seven years, during which time she’s elevated the profile of that mission-owned research institution.
But now she finds herself in charge of a much larger and multifaceted entity, as the mission simultaneously stars in the worlds of religion, history, and tourism. It’s the home for about a dozen Franciscan friars; it’s the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Saint Barbara Parish, with about 600 registered families; it’s a treasure trove of artifacts both on display and behind closed doors; and its museum is visited by more than 250,000 people each year, though countless others — probably five to 10 times more — simply visit the grounds. It’s also the icon of Santa Barbara to the rest of the world and the employer of about 35-40 full- and part-time employees, as well as a vibrant volunteer docent team. And it’s mighty old, which means constant, often expensive upkeep. And yet tourists tend to dominate the site, as if Santa Barbarans had ceded their city’s most prominent landmark to out-of-towners.
Altogether, Orozco is stepping into one of the most difficult and dynamic jobs in Santa Barbara, which has the potential to be one of the most rewarding, too. “We’re more than a backdrop,” said Orozco. “There’s a lot of really exciting things happening here.”
She spoke with The Santa Barbara Independent last week about her new role, and an edited version of that conversation follows:
Tell us about your new job. It’s a new position. Traditionally, a friar has been both the guardian and the administrative head of the mission. This is the first time those positions have been separated. I’ll be working with the two friars as part of the executive leadership team: Brother Regan Chapman, who is the guardian, and Father Adrian Peelo, who is the pastor.
Why did they secularize this position? A big reason is that there are fewer friars than there used to be. The friars that we do have would rather be doing their ministries, and I can’t blame them. That’s what Franciscans do. The idea of partnering with non-friars to do the administrative work didn’t begin here. At Mission San Luis Rey, they have a similar setup. We are allowing the friars to do their more important work.
What are all the components at play? Not only are we a historical landmark, but we are a living mission. We are a home to the friar community; we have the parish and then the Archive Library, which is a research facility, and the museum. There is a lot going on here. What we are trying to do is to communicate better what we do to the community and to emphasize the Franciscan values of service, joy, and hospitality.
What does the job entail? I will be running basically everything that has to do with the mission structure itself, the activities that go on here, the gift shop, the tours, our visitors, the festivals that come here, like I Madonnari and Fiesta Pequeña. I’ll be making sure all that runs smoothly. I am also ultimately in charge of the staff. I’m trying to make sure we are good stewards of this landmark and living mission and that we increase revenue to pay for a lot of the deferred maintenance. Anyone who owns a home knows that there is constant maintenance. Imagine something as old as the mission! It’s my job to make sure it continues to move smoothly and is here for generations to come.
Has this new role been in the works for a while? It’s been under discussion for probably the last two years, but I was approached fairly recently. It happened quickly. But I’ve been involved increasingly in the mission leadership, and we’ve been meeting weekly for about three to four years now.
Do you have a major things-to-do list? For the first couple months, I’ll be getting my feet under me. But look for a major outreach campaign in the new year. We really want to welcome the community but also reach out to see how we can really contribute to the community. We have people come from all over the world to see the mission, but we want to make this a place where the local community wants to come back often. Most of us who grew up here might have come in the 4th grade but maybe not returned, or when [we] do return, it’s just out on the front lawn for a big event. We’re trying to really make the experience for all of our visitors extraordinary, and we want people to come back.
Are you leaving your role at the library? I have two assistants, Rachel Hatcher and Brittany Bratcher, and they’re already doing a lot. But I will stay affiliated with the Archive Library during a long-term transition period that will allow them to assume new roles. There should be no disruption. And the same thing at the mission: Interim Executive Director Christina Sumpter will stay for an extended period. She has some projects she initiated, and I have some at the library to continue to usher. So it should be a smooth transition in both.
The mission is such a part of the Santa Barbara landscape that it’s easy to forget. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. People are so used to seeing us — we are the symbol of the city; you see a rendering of the mission everywhere — but very few people understand the activities that actually happen behind the façade of the church and convento. That’s our challenge: to communicate what we’re doing better.