Jewel of the Missions ~ Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano

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.

Remaining wall from The Great Stone Church
Remaining wall from The Great Stone Church

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.

Great Stone Church bells
Great Stone Church bells

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.

Cliff swallow mud nests
Cliff swallow mud nests

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.

Serra Chapel
Serra Chapel

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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Two King-Size Attractions ~ Oceanside, CA

Two king-size attractions await those who visit Oceanside, CA, the first being Oceanside Pier.

Oceanside Pier
Oceanside Pier (Wikipedia image)

Built in 1888, it is the longest wooden pier on the western U.S. coastline, ~1950 feet in length.  Although grand in stature, it will not be the focal point of this post.

Mission San Luis Rey de FranciaSecond, and the main topic, is Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (the Mission of Saint Louis, King of France). Founded by Franciscan Fermín Lasuén in June, 1798, it was nicknamed “King of the Missions”, as it was the largest of the California missions, covering 6 acres at its most prosperous time.

At its peak you can imagine the grandeur of this mission, stark white façade against an azure sky.  Incorporate into this image lush gardens and thousands of head of cattle and sheep being tended by the Luiseño Indians and you can see why it was dubbed “the king”.

Friar Antonio Peyri was put in charge of the mission and became solely responsible for the design and building of the site.  He was much beloved by the 2800 Luiseño Indians who lived within the mission boundaries and it is said that after 33 years of service, upon his retirement, two of the Luiseños left their native land and returned with him to Spain.

Church construction began in 1811 and was completed by 1815.  It was a showpiece due to its unique styling and is only one of two mission churches whose design is cruciform.

Nicaraguan crucifix
Stunning statues and colors in the main altar

The sense of reverence felt when you enter the chapel is palpable.  Many of the original artifacts still exist today, the central crucifix from Nicaragua, the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 14 Stations of the Cross, and the hand-hammered baptismal font, to name a few.

Carriage Arch
Carriage Arch

The Quadrangle (4-sided patio) houses the historic pepper tree planted by Father Peyri.  The seeds for this tree were brought to the mission by a sailor from Peru in 1830.  Now dubbed the “California Pepper Tree”, it sports creamy white flowers in the summer and dark pink peppery berries in the fall.  We grew several of these trees on a former property of ours in Phoenix and it is interesting to know its origins.

Oldest pepper tree in California
Oldest pepper tree in California

The lavanderia (laundry) was particularly interesting to us, as the grounds here reminded us of some of the archaeological sites we explored while in Mexico. This was the area where the residents went to bathe and wash their clothes.  The water used for these tasks was siphoned in from the San Luis Rey River via aqueducts into a series of stone and tile pools.  It was considered a comprehensive water conservation system, even by today’s standards.

Aqueduct in lavanderia

Excavation work here continues today with plans for future archaeological digs. Two gargoyle fountains, a part of the lavanderia, were unearthed in a nearby swamp.

Gargoyle fountain at Mission San Luis Rey
Gargoyle fountain

Today Mission San Luis Rey is a working mission, watched over by her parishioners.  The historic church faces closure if fundraising attempts for a state-mandated seismic retrofit are not successful.  If would be sad indeed if this slice of California’s cultural heritage is lost.

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Our Mission for the Day ~ Mission San Diego de Alcala

The email read, “your mission, should you choose to accept it…”, ok not really, but the invitation  to join Nina and Paul of Wheeling It at Mission San Diego de Alcalá was a great suggestion.

We have been fans of their wonderful blog for some time and when I discovered we were all to be in San Diego at the same time, I had hoped for a meet-and-greet and hooray, they were game.  Excellent writing, photography, and RV tips are just a few reasons we are big fans of their blog, not to mention what a lovely couple they are .

During our time in Mexico, we found ourselves gravitating towards the magnificent churches in the lovely colonial cities we visited and  have been drawn to the missions and churches in our travels ever since.

Mission San Diego de Alcala (Wikipedia image)

The far West gave birth to Christianity with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá on July 16, 1769, by Franciscan priest Junípero Serra.   This, the first of 21 California missions, dubbed the “Mother of the Alta California Missions”, provided a foothold for Catholicism in this corner of the world.

The naming of San Diego the city occurred ~225 years earlier than the founding of this first mission and was originally named San Miguel, after the saint whose feast day was closest to the landing of the first Spanish expedition here.  In 1602 it was renamed San Diego, once again being named for the feast day closest to the fleet’s landing date in the harbor, that of Saint Didacus (San Diego) of Alcalá.  And the name stuck!

The original site for the mission overlooked the bay but remained at this location a mere 5 years; the water supply was lacking and the soil was not fertile enough to sustain the crops.  The decision was made by the pastor of the mission, Father Luís Jayme, to pick up stakes and move 6 miles to the east.  This second site was closer to the river and the Kumeyaay Indians, with whom the friar had a good rapport.  The Kumeyaay were hunters and gatherers and fairly nomadic, not unlike we RVers.  Unfortunately a few rogue Indians incited hundreds of others to riot and during this uprising, Father Jayme lost his life and the mission was burned to the ground.

Father Luis Jayme during Kumeyaay raid, shortly before his death.

Father Jayme became California’s first Christian martyr and his body is interred under the altar in the present-day church.

Many arduous years passed before this mission was to be rebuilt and become productive but it did, having its most plentiful year for both crops and Christian conversions in 1797.

When Mexico gained her independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government did not have the same allegiance to the missions as the Spanish, and the United States (having acquired this land from Mexico) strayed from the original intent and allowed the missions to be occupied by the Calvary.  They moved on in 1859 and it sat vacant for many years until becoming a school for American Indian children for 17 years.  In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed an order to restore ownership of the Mission proper to the Roman Catholic church.

The mission that stands on the current grounds is the 5th church on this site.  In 1976, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was named a basilica, an honor bequeathed by Pope Paul VI.  The mission continues to be an active parish today, staffed by secular priests.

Simple yet charming sanctuary

The campanario (bell tower) deserves mention as it has an interesting history, I believe.  Church bells across the world are rung to signify specific events during the day or the year, with different tones and sequences, and these are no exception.

Today there remains an original bell from 1802, that being one of the two larger bells on the bottom right in the above photo.  When the King of Spain wanted bells forged for his missions, he insisted on a crown atop the bell.  The large bell on the bottom left has been made from remnants of other original bells.  All five bells are rung in unison only once a year, that being the mission’s birthday.

Apparently we all worked up an appetite while getting our history lesson for the day, so decided on an early lunch at the Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill, another great recommendation by Nina and Paul, found while watching Diners, Drive-ins & Dives on the Food Network.

I have heard it said that you can tell who the bloggers are in a restaurant as they are the ones taking pictures of their food.  While I don’t often do this, I had to make an exception before I dove into this gastronomic feast.  They tasted even better than they look and yes, I ate the whole thing!

Wild steelhead trout fish tacos

With full stomachs and smiles on our faces, we headed over to Nina and Paul’s pad to meet the rest of the family.  Polly, a border-collie mix, is just as spunky and beautiful as her pictures; Taggart, an orange tabby, is very sleek and elegant; and Rand was being a cat, very independent, and not accepting visitors on this particular day.  We can only vouch for her existence by her pictures and the lump we saw under the comforter!

All-in-all it was a truly lovely day and we feel we have made some new friends, which is one of the fabulous bonuses of this lifestyle.

And here is the lovely couple, Paul & Nina, silently willing Terry to get on with it and take their picture so they can dive into their fish tacos.

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