Santa Barbara Mission gift shop in good hands with JoAnn Cota and Joan Cota
A total of 132 years and counting.
That’s how many years sisters-in-law JoAnn Cota and Joan Cota have been working at the Santa Barbara Mission gift shop.
Counting because Joan is still an employee while JoAnn reluctantly retired after 65 years when she fell and injured her hip.
“I stopped in 2020,” JoAnn said. “Otherwise, I’d still be working here. Time has passed so fast. I can’t believe it’s been as many years as it has.”
She and Joan started their stints the same month, September 1955, but did not know each other before that.
“I began work at the Mission through a friend who had been working in the shop already,” said JoAnn, who was born in Santa Maria and married Edwin Cota in 1953. The couple have seven grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1938, Joan moved to this area in 1945. She married James Cota (Edwin’s brother) in 1962, and has two sons and a daughter.
“My aunt worked here first. Then I started after she left. This was my first job and has been my only job,” said Joan.
The two women were recently honored at the Mission as “exemplary employees who have served the Mission for more than 60 years.”
During an interview after the celebration, JoAnn and Joan talked about changes over the decades and happily shared memories that illustrated why they never considered their time in the gift shop a job.
“When we first started, there were no cash registers, only cash boxes that you worked out of,” said JoAnn. “The Franciscan brothers gave tours, which were free until 1968 when they charged 50 cents. Gradually they kept going up, up, up. Now they are $15 for adults and $10 for children.”
“Women were not allowed to enter the Sacred Garden, where the tour route starts now,” Joan said. “Because we weren’t allowed in the back, a friar would bring us coffee in the afternoons. We also used to climb up on the desk in the office to look through the window at the friars walking in the garden and saying their prayers. We were not allowed to wear pants, only dresses or skirts.”
“We would host the friars at our homes, serving enchiladas and drinks, and the friars would help with dishes at the end of the meals,” JoAnn said. “Back in the early years, the friars only had one car between them. One day, Fr. Basil Kelly asked to borrow my car. When he came back, he told me he was never doing that again. Apparently, he had lost a hubcap and had to climb down a ravine to retrieve it.”
They both remember fondly the many friars they’ve worked with through the years, including Fr. Virgil Cordano, who worked in the archives. They had a long friendship with him.
“Everybody knew Fr. Virgil. He came here to attend St. Anthony’s Seminary. Such a wonderful man,” said Joan.
Both women laughed as they remembered one of the brown-robed friars galloping down Laguna Street trying to catch one of the sheep who had gotten loose from the Christmas creche in front of the Mission.
Nothing can top the rainy day in 1983 when the queen of England and her husband Prince Philip paid a visit along with Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan.
“They brought bloodhounds through the Mission before she entered, and we watched the queen plant a tree in the cemetery,” said Joan.
Other celebrities have shopped there, too.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger brought one of his sons to do a report on the Mission,” said Joan. “We get a lot of athletes but don’t know their names. The late actress Loretta Young was a customer, and so was Blake Shelton, country music singer and television personality.”
“We get a lot of tourists from the cruise ships,” said JoAnn, whose son Brian and daughter Cynthia worked in the shop when they were in high school. “My granddaughters, Stacia and Kara, have worked here, too.”
“We used to hire high schoolers to work on weekends and holidays. They were wonderful workers,” said Joan, whose daughter Theresa Cota Pote, has been working at the shop for 40 years and has no plans to retire.
JoAnn and Joan agreed that there has been much change through the years. The shop has seen many evolutions as well; rooms have been added, and shelves have been remodeled.
Among the popular items available are rosaries, medals and statues with the Mission logo on them, and the most popular saints are Christopher, Michael and Anthony.
“A souvenir medal with St. Barbara on one side and the Mission on the other for $1.50 is a best seller,” said Joan. “We also have them in sterling silver and 14K gold that are more expensive.”
“Years ago, we would never think of selling socks,” said JoAnn. “Now we have all kinds along with scarves, hats and Mexican pottery. Visitors like to buy votive candles to light for loved ones. They leave them on a rack on the front porch, not in the Mission.
“My favorite part of working here was just getting up and coming to work every day, working together and getting to meet people from all over the world,” JoAnn added.
Her good friend and co-worker, Joan Cota, heartily agreed.