There hasn’t been much sun in sunny So Cal lately but yesterday the clouds parted for a time (a brief respite between rainstorms) so we grabbed our jackets and headed out. I had wanted to visit another of the California missions, one I had not been to in roughly 30 years, the Jewel of the Missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano. Hubby had never been so I was anxious for him to see this magnificent little sliver of California history.
This jewel was consecrated on October 30, 1775 by Father Fermín Lasuén but mere weeks later was abandoned as a revolt in San Diego took soldiers and padres away and it wasn’t until All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1776, that Father Junipero Serra re-founded the Mission. This was the 7th of the 21 California missions, and like the previous six, San Juan Capistrano was established to expand Spain’s territory boundaries and spread Christianity to the Native Americans.
Despite the dramatic changes that Christianity brought to the Native Americans, the Mission grew to a population of over 1000 by 1806 and The Great Stone Church had been completed, a stunning piece of architecture built in the classical Greco-Roman styling. Many modern-day architects have dubbed this the “American Acropolis”.
Bells were vitally important to the daily life of all the missions, being rung at mealtimes, for religious services, funerals, births, etc. and the Great Stone Church had a massive 120-foot bell tower, which could be seen and heard for more than 10 miles. On the morning of December 8, 1812, tragedy struck when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the earth, completely destroying the bell tower and the main body of the church. Forty worshipers who were attending mass at the time, along with two boys who had been ringing the bells, lost their lives as they were buried under the rubble. Thus began the decline of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The four bells from the bell tower were salvaged from the wreckage and today stand in a brick companario (bell wall). The Great Stone Church has never been reconstructed as no one at that time had the construction expertise needed for such a daunting task. In 2002 the renown World Monuments Fund put “The Great Stone Church” on its List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. A series of retrofits was completed on the church in 2004 at great cost.
By 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain and California became a Mexican territory. Within 12 years the Mexican government ended the mission system and the property was sold off to wealthy Californians. The Mission itself became a private ranch.
A few years later the United States won the Mexican-American War and Mission San Juan Capistrano saw yet another change as the parishioners wanted the mission lands returned to the church. President Abraham Lincoln responded to their pleas and in 1865 signed a proclamation returning the ownership of the Mission to the Roman Catholic Church.
Even with the rich history that swirls around the California missions, the “signature icon” of this particular site is the cliff swallows that migrate here every March, making their 6000 mile trek from Goya, Argentina, their winter home. The Great Stone Church has the dubious honor of housing these beautiful feathered creatures that were so loved by St. Francis. Each March 19th on St. Joseph’s Day, a celebration is held marking the return of the swallows.
Due to a loss of water and food sources with the spread of urbanization, fewer swallows return to the Mission annually, finding refuge closer to creeks. For those who do return, they can be seen building their mud nests in the church eaves and near the end of October they circle the Mission before bidding farewell, beginning their long journey back to South America.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is also home to the oldest building still in use in California, the Serra Chapel, built in 1782, where Father Serra was known to celebrate mass. Today some morning services are still held here but most religious observances are conducted at the Basilica next door to the Mission, built in 1986, and designed after the original stone church. Housing a striking 16-ton back altar carved in cedar and covered in gold leaf, it is reminiscent of 17th century Spanish and Mexican colonial altars.
Touring the magnificent landmark of Mission San Juan Capistrano can be done by way of a self-guided audio tour or docent-led. However you prefer to wander these sacred grounds, rest assured you will not be alone. More than 500,000 visitors come here annually to pay their respects to the “Jewel of the Missions”.
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