The land on which the Santa Rosa Chapel was built was part of the lands of the Mission San Miguel (as was all of the Cambria area). When the Mexican Government secularized the missions in the 1830s and 1840s, land grants were given to prominent citizens and Rancho Santa Rosa was given to Don Julian Estrada while Rancho San Simeon was given to Don Jose Ramon Estrada.. Don Julian Estrada and his wife, Dona Nicolasa, built a house near the intersection of Highway One and Forty Six and they opened their home, guest quarters and gardens to accommodate the Catholic ceremonies in the area as local residents had no other place to worship. Priests from Mission San Luis Obispo and from Mission San Miguel celebrated mass and conducted marriages, baptisms and funerals in the Estrada compound.
Following the Mexican-American War, Mexican land grants were surveyed by the American Government and the land between Rancho Santa Rosa and Rancho San Simeon was declared public land. One of the first settlers to enter a claim for this land was Jeffrey Phelan. Both ranchos were divided up and sold to various settlers and a town variously called Slabtown, Santa Rosa, Rosaville and finally Cambria was established. Jeffrey Phelan sold the site of the present day Santa Rosa Chapel and Cemetery to Bishop Tadeo Amat of the Los Angeles-Monterey Diocese for 100 gold coins.
In 1871, the chapel was completed on a high hill overlooking downtown Cambria, the present day east village. The building was constructed of locally grown and milled pine and was dedicated to St. Rose of Lima. Aside from the missions themselves, this was the first Catholic church built in San Luis Obispo County. Priests from both the Mission San Luis Obispo and the Mission San Miguel traveled to Cambria (weather permitting) to conduct services.
Isabella Estrada, daughter of Don Julian and Dona Nicolasa, was buried in the church cemetery in 1888 and today, if you walk through the cemetery, you will see many historic names including Phelan, Estrada, Fiscalini, Cantua, Pereira and Magetti, owners of the “Blue House” on Center Street.
Starting in 1935, Santa Rosa Chapel and St. Joseph Church in Cayucos shared a priest who lived in Cayucos and traveled to Cambria every Sunday. In 1960 Santa Rosa Chapel finally became an independent parish. The last mass at this chapel was celebrated in 1963 for it was in that year that the new church, on Main Street between East and West Village, was completed.
After the new church was opened, the old chapel remained empty and unused for many years. In 1978 a committee led by Clementine Newman was organized to restore it. In 1982 the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places. By 1985 the restoration was complete. Brush and trees had been removed and a fence and gate added. Workers raised and restored the foundation, replaced siding on the north and east sides, installed new window panes and a new floor and replaced much of the wainscoting. They rebuilt the floors, communion rail, confessional, side altars, and the iron fence and gateway at the cemetery. The committee restored curbing around family plots and placed redwood markers on unmarked graves. They bought pews from Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz and even found the original 1871 altar in a Phelan barn.
Today, funds are continuously being raised for restoration and maintenance of the chapel by renting it out for weddings and memorial services. Additional funds are raised by the annual polenta dinner and a Christmas program.