He’s a man of the cloth. He’s a man of his word and of the Word. His name is Father Tom Elewaut and he has a vision for the San Buenaventura Mission to enrich its history, its intrigue and to give it a clean, contemporary edge.

His vision turned into reality has given the old mission new life.

“There was a lot of wear and tear — somewhat neglected,” said Elewaut of the mission upon his arrival in March. “I wanted to preserve the historical facility.”

Aiming for preservation, Elewaut chose renovation, and almost everywhere at the campus of the more than a century-old mission, his divine inspiration has led to a fresher more efficient, modern feel. The mission chapel was overhauled with new carpeting on the main floor and the altar stripped of the old carpeting to expose rustic tiles. The chapel also has newly streaming gospel music between Mass. In the rectory, he has taken over kitchen and bathroom repair, taking charge of fixing the old plumbing problems. The unappealing gift shop off Main Street that few ever wandered into — it now has the warm appeal of a modern Spanish adobe. The gardens are well-maintained, but Elewaut pays attention to the details. At the kneeler at Mary the Blessed Virgin, he even revamped the vases, which before often broke, but now fresh flowers are protected in their display.  

It may seem that Elewaut had spent his life in ministry renovating and remodeling, but that’s not the case (though he will tell you some of his favorite shows are on Home and Garden Television). His life’s work has been education for the last 30 years. He recalled how he always had his heart set on being a teacher in his youth, but he had a calling from God his senior year in college that was so strong, he couldn’t ignore it. Fortunately, he was able to apply his master’s degree in education to his calling.

Under his direction, St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, Calif., was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 1992. In 2008, Elewaut was honored with the Catholic Education Award. After a fulfilling life in education, he applied for his first parish assignment. When the priest personnel board called, he was asked to consider an opening at the San Buenaventura Mission — the position needed to be filled immediately. He left his position as principal at Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara in February to take over the parish in Ventura.

“I am very grateful and honored to be at such a historic mission,” Elewaut said, reflecting on Father Junipero Serra’s ninth and final establishment, circa 1782, the San Buenaventura Mission, thanks to the help of the Chumash Indians.

Elawaut’s goal with his parish assignment is not only to preserve and restore, but also to focus on outreach in the community. Though he won’t compromise the basic Catholic tenets, as he is by-the-Book when it comes to sacrament, reconciliation, etc., he said the mission is about connecting people together. He noted how his predecessor followed a rather strict structure in running the mission, but he wanted to do things differently.

“He felt everything needed to be evangelical,” Elawaut said.  

In pursuing the vision to make the church more accessible, he has been working with the San Buenaventura Conservancy for its next historic tour on Saturday, Nov. 5, when the public will be able to view buildings of the mission and the Washington Hotel that have never been seen before. He is also looking forward to the tree lighting on Dec. 3 and has invited churches of various sects to join in the ceremony.

While many have strayed from the church, Elawaut affirmed that it is indeed growing. The mission itself has 1,800 active members, with 3,000 registered families on the books. Depending on the time, Mass brings in 300 to 500 people every Sunday with around 150 children attending Holy Cross School, which teaches first through eighth grades.

Though the Catholic Church has undergone heavy scrutiny due to the child molestation scandals, he said that only 3 percent to 4 percent of the bishops have engaged in such activity. The church leads the nation, he said, in requiring tri-annual training courses for employees and volunteers to keep its sanctity.

Whether one is a devout zealot or skeptical atheist, the San Buenaventura Mission has been reinvigorated. If one should wish to connect with nature or God, or both, Elawaut has sent out the invite. From its rich history to its spiritual wholesomeness, the mission has a little something for everyone. Should someone feel so inclined, confessions are on Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 p.m., and don’t worry, your secret is safe with Father Tom.   


A mission statement 

A rare architectural tour of the historic San Buenaventura Mission 

by Steve Schafer

An iconic relic in Ventura County, the San Buenaventura Mission stands as not only a fundamental piece of local history, but continues to live on as a place of worship and peace. Regardless of one’s religion, reverence comes almost automatically for the holy sanctuary and gardens, for the work that has been to preserve it and the rich stories of its evolution of the last century. This week the VCReporter features the Mission, its respective structures and the Washington Hotel, then and now, as the San Buenaventura Conservancy hosts the architectural tour this Saturday, Nov. 5.

f1782 Mission San Buenaventura
Have you ever pointed to the imposing white plaster church in downtown Ventura and called it the “Mission”? I have, and while the chapel with its domed bell tower is the oldest building in Ventura and the birthplace of Ventura, missions are not really buildings. (They may not even be things, but concepts.) True to form, Mission San Buenaventura was a religious (and military) outpost established by Spanish Roman Catholics of the Franciscan Order, the ninth and last of the 21 missions established personally by Father Junipero Serra. On Easter Sunday 1782, Serra and his Spanish missionaries arrived in what they would name “San Buenaventura,” dedicating a mission, erecting a cross and celebrating Mass under a shelter of brushwood boughs. The missionaries set to work converting the Chumash natives and establishing a catholic outpost of adobe buildings, thriving orchards and herds of livestock.

ar more mission-era structures have disappeared than still remain standing, and the acreage of the mission quadrangle, gardens, orchards, vineyards, livestock yards and neophyte barracks covered mavvny acres at its peak in 1816. From an architectural standpoint, the evolution of the mission from brushwood boughs to the San Miguel Chapel (Ventura’s first adobe building; now destroyed) to the Spanish colonial quadrangle, to the current complex arranged around the historic chapel, the story has always been a mission statement of belief and persistence. Today the San Buenaventura Mission is a thriving Catholic parish with 3,000 registered families, a full schedule of Sunday and daily Masses, a pre-K through eighth grade school and a museum and gift shop. 

n1809 Mission Chapel
California represents the high-water mark of Spanish expansion in North America, and the present mission chapel — a true Spanish colonial (not revival) — fits into this elite category nicely. The present adobe chapel, the third edifice of the mission, was constructed entirely by Chumash Indian neophyte labor over a 15-year period. The altar was placed in the building at this time and the chapel was dedicated in September 1809. It was severely damaged by earthquakes in 1812, cracking the 6-foot-thick adobe walls, damaging the facade and destroying the bell tower. The bell tower and facade were repaired with a huge buttress added for stabilization. Then, in 1857, another earthquake caved in the roof. The interior was “modernized” in 1892, when the pulpit was removed, Chumash Indian artwork covered all, the beamed ceilings and original tile floors covered, all for a more progressive look. In 1956 a restoration project was begun to reverse those modernizations, and recently many elements have been further restored under the current direction of the Rev. Tom Elewaut. The mission bells received a modern remote control system and now ring once more after failing in 2010. 

s1922 Holy Cross School
Holy Cross School first opened in 1922 with an enrollment of 125 students; eight years later there were 275. The brick north half of the building dates to 1922 while tvhe concrete south half was erected in 1956 to expand the school during the post-war population boom. It is a historic time capsule with classrooms that still contain child-height chalkboards, wood floors and narrow closets with rows of hooks for jackets. Across the hall is the auditorium, with a stage that also doubled as a gymnasium.

r1880 and 1928 Rectory
A two-story Victorian parish house was built next to the chapel around 1880 as a home for the priests, or rectory.

Planted next to the front porch were two tiny Norfolk Island pine trees, which have become landmarks on their own.

The wood house was removed in 1928 when ground was broken for the construction of a larger rectory that would border a garden courtyard behind the soaring pines; it was to be built in the revival fashion. The style in vogue in 1928 was Spanish Colonial Revival and, in a fitting tribute, this was partly a result the “mission mania” of the era.

The character-defining features of the style included archways, hand-troweled plaster walls, red clay tile roofs, hand-painted wooden beams, intricate stained glass windows, Spanish tile designs, wrought-iron gates and lighting and Monterey furnishings, all created to be “similar to that of the Mission Fathers.” Designed by Harold Burket, a young architect at the time, the rectory at the rear of the garden has all these classic elements and more. Burket later became prominent in Ventura County, designing many important buildings including the Ventura Elks Lodge, the Ventura County Courthouse Annex, and Community Presbyterian Church on Poli Street.

21888 Reardon undertakers, Hotel Washington, mission gift shop
The mission gift shop is in a building that was built in two halves. One side was built circa 1888 and then expanded in the 1890s and was among the first brick commercial structures built after the removal of the adobe mission quadrangle. This was the first location of the Reardon Undertaking Company. When the undertakers moved out, the building became the Hotel Washington. With the oil boom of the 1920s came a need for modern hotels and the Ventura Inn, Fosnaugh Hotel and El Nido Hotel were built to accommodate the need. Less fancy hotels like the El Patio, Hamilton and Washington Hotel filled a more practical need for a place to sleep. The Washington Hotel’s first floor contained a lobby, restaurant and retail shop, and the second floor had 20 hotel rooms on either side of a U-shaped hallway. Four more hotel rooms were created from the former undertakers quarters. A single communal bathroom was installed with two showers. Each simple room had a sink and closet. The rooms in the middle of the building had light wells with interior windows. Above each room’s door was a transom window for ventilation. In 1960 the building was sold to the Catholic Church. The bottom floor was converted into a gift shop, and a door was cut in the side to access the mission museum and courtyard; the upstairs was locked and used for storage. This gives us a remarkably rare opportunity to see working-class oil-boom hotel accommodations because this adaptive reuse (or nonuse) has so perfectly preserved this building as a statement of its time.

The tour
Step into the never-before-seen rectory, a Spanish revival masterpiece with original furnishings, stenciled beams and inlaid tiles around the fireplaces. The rectory is a must-see. In contrast, see the most popular site on the 2009 Upstairs Downtown Tour – the Washington Hotel. Frozen in time in the 1930s, it was boarded up and forgotten as dusty storage. Plus the Holy Cross Schoolhouse, gardens and newly restored sacred spaces in the chapel with artifacts dating back 400 years. The self-guided tour runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5. Tickets are available at the door. (Historic stairs are involved, wear comfy shoes!)$20 per person; $10 Conservancy members, children younger than 12 are free.