Water and its availability was an essential factor in the selection of a site for a mission. Water was necessary for washing clothes, for drinking and cooking, and for irrigating the crops. There are several instances of missions being moved in order to be closer to a better water supply. Sometimes, in their desire to be close to a water source, the padres located the mission too close to a river or stream. Floods damaged the buildings and the mission had to be moved further away from the river.
The mission laundry was called a lavandería. Some missions had much larger lavanderías than other missions.
The lavandería at Mission San Luis Rey was large. A wide stairway led from the mission compound down to a big pool surrounded by an elaborate sunken garden. The pool was lined with adobe tiles. Water for the lavandería came from two springs, spilling into the pool from the mouths of two stone gargoyles (distorted animal figures). From the pool, the water ran out to the orchards and gardens to provide irrigation for the crops.
The terraces, steps, and pool at Mission San Luis Rey have been excavated and can be visited and viewed today.
The Native Californian women who lived at the mission brought the dirty clothes to the lavandería and soaked them in the pool. They spread the wet clothes out on the stone steps, rubbed soap on them, and then beat them with wooden paddles. After being rinsed in clean water, the clothes were spread out on the bushes to dry.
Laundry day was a social occasion for the women. It took many hours to wash and dry the clothes. The women could visit with each other as they scrubbed their clothes, and as they waited for them to dry in the sun.
The lavandería at Mission Santa Bárbara was part of an elaborate water system designed by Padre Estévan Tapis. Under his direction, the Indians built two dams on Pedragoso Creek, on the hillside above the mission. A stone aqueduct carried the water two miles down the hillside to a storage reservoir. From this storage reservoir, some of the water was channeled off through another aqueduct to a settling tank and then through a third aqueduct to the mission compound, where it was used for drinking and cooking.
Some of the water from the storage reservoir ran into another 110-foot square reservoir and then through a second aqueduct and into the fountain in front of the mission church. From the fountain, the water flowed into the lavandería through the mouth of a stone California bear. The lavandería at Mission Santa Bárbara was a 70-foot-long stone basin. Part of this water system is still usable today. The original lavandería and the stone bear are still there, in front of the mission church.
La Purísima’s water system brought the water from springs three miles away, through a series of adobe tile pipes. The water flowed into three large basins and a cistern (tank). Drinking water was filtered through three feet of charcoal and sand. Water for the two lavanderías flowed into circular pools. The women used the brick rims of the pools to spread the clothes out for soaping. The water from the lavandería was drawn out into a settling pool, and then used to irrigate the fields.
At some missions, the water system provided water power to turn a gristmill wheel to grind corn and wheat.
Each mission had a different water system, depending on where the water source was located. At Mission San Buenaventura, the main aqueduct was seven miles long. At Mission San Francisco Solano, the stone cistern to which the water was piped was located right in the middle of the mission courtyard. Here water could be dipped out for cooking as well as for doing the laundry.
Those who lived at Mission San José had the added convenience of warm water in the lavandería. In the plaza in front of the church was a fountain, surrounded by a basin about ten feet square. This basin was used both for bathing and for washing clothes. The warm water came from a natural hot springs nearby. It was carried through an aqueduct to the fountain. This area was known as Warm Springs long after the mission period ended and the lavandería had disappeared.