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The city of San Juan Capistrano is roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It grew up around an 18th century Spanish mission of the same name, which marketeers from the local chamber of commerce have dubbed “the Jewel of the Missions.” That could be a rare example of a truly honest and accurate advertising slogan. Father St. John O’Sullivan, the Mission’s parish priest from 1910 to 1933, devoted himself to restoring and rebuilding decrepit ruins into an idealized romantic vision of what a Spanish Colonial mission should look like.
Pedantic historians might have conniptions over the pleasing array of flowers, trees, and fountains. Those would have been out of place in an 18th century mission, which was essentially a rough-hewn labor camp. But anyone else can simply enjoy the serene beauty of Father O’Sullivan’s dedicated efforts. An uncrowded autumn weekday afternoon is a particularly good time for leisurely exploration.
In the late 18th century, Russian traders began to make incursions into the Spanish territory of Alta (“upper”) California. (The southern section of Spanish California was the peninsula still called Baja— “lower”— California.) So the Spanish king decided to establish a permanent military presence there. The Pope also saw an opportunity to expand his own empire in the New World, with its flock of Indians ripe for conversion. Franciscan friars led by Father Junípero Serra accompanied the Spanish military forces, and founded 21 missions along the California coast. San Juan Capistrano was the seventh in the chain.
The historical account dispensed to mission visitors, and to schoolchildren throughout California when they study state history in the fourth grade, emphasizes the altruism of Father Serra and the Franciscans. Enduring significant hardship, they set out to rescue the Indians from a backward and uncivilized existence while on Earth, and from the fires of Hell thereafter. This selfless dedication led Pope John Paul II to beatify Serra in 1988, and Pope Francis to canonize him as a saint in 2015. Though Serra’s writings suggest that he genuinely sought to help the Indians, whatever noble intent he had too often got lost in practice.
Father Fermín Lasuén was Serra’s lieutenant and eventual successor, who founded twelve missions after Serra’s death. Lasuén made his first attempt at establishing Mission San Juan Capistrano on 30 October 1775. He chose a site halfway between San Diego (California’s first mission) and the San Gabriel Mission (in what is now the northern suburbs of Los Angeles). He named the new mission for Giovanni da Capistrano, a 15th century Italian Franciscan friar whose fiery proselytizing oratory, zealous attacks on heresy and heretics, and loyal service to the Pope earned him a place in the Catholic canon of saints.
But only eight days later, Lasuén had to rush back to San Diego to help put down an Indian rebellion. Indian rebellions, riots, and attacks were frequent occurrences at the California missions. The Franciscan gifts of civilization and salvation came at a price that Indians were often unwilling to pay.
Contrary to the sanitized schoolbook version of history, it was official Spanish policy to eradicate all native cultures in the conquered New World territories. In California, the Franciscans and Spanish troops rounded up the local population, herded them onto mission sites, and baptized them as “neophytes.” Forbidden to leave, the neophytes became slave laborers forced to build the missions, grow crops, and manufacture goods for the Franciscans and the military. The Franciscans regarded the Indians as “spiritual children,” who needed frequent corporal punishment to ensure their obedience and productivity. The Indians also succumbed to smallpox, measles, and other European diseases to which they lacked immunity, with the crowded conditions of the mission “communities” contributing to their devastating spread. Indians thus took advantage of any opportunity to rebel against their Spanish masters.
Serra and Lausén returned to San Juan Capistrano a year later, on 1 November 1776. This time they selected a new location five kilometers to the west, near an Indian village with a better water supply. Not surprisingly, they began the new mission by building a church. Now known as the Serra Chapel, it’s the only surviving California mission church where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass.
By the 1790s, the Mission’s Ahachamai Indian population— the Spanish renamed them “Juaneños”— had outgrown the Serra Chapel. The Franciscans decided they needed an appropriately impressive church. They hired renowned Mexican architect and stonemason Isidoro Aguílar to design it, and to supervise the Indians who built it. Laid out in the shape of a cross like the great European cathedrals, the church had a dome with six vaults and a campanile (bell tower) 37 meters high. Construction of this “Great Stone Church” began in 1797, and reportedly required the participation of the entire Ahachamai labor force. The church stood for only six years after its 1806 consecration.
1812 was definitely not a good year for California’s missions. During morning Mass on 8 December, an earthquake destroyed the Great Stone Church and killed 42 Ahachamai. Substandard construction probably contributed to the death toll. After Aguílar died in 1803, the Franciscans could not find anyone else with the skills to complete the construction properly.
Three weeks later, another large earthquake destroyed La Purísima Mission on the central coast in present-day Lompoc, and severely damaged the nearby Santa Barbara and Santa Inés Missions. The San Juan Capistrano padres tried to rebuild their church in 1815, but quickly abandoned the effort because they still couldn’t find a competent mason.
Now preserved in a state of arrested decay, the ruined church provides a home for San Juan Capistrano’s most famous residents. Cliff swallows spend more than half the year there. Nooks and crannies in the ruins provide nesting sites similar to the cliffs they used before humans arrived. Saint Joseph’s Day, on 19 March, is the official date of the swallows’ arrival from their winter home in Argentina. To welcome them, the city sponsors (and reaps significant revenue from) the week-long Fiesta de las Golondrinas. The swallows have a scheduled departure date as well, Saint John’s Day on 23 October. But for some reason that doesn’t merit a fiesta.
The Juaneño Indians apparently never rioted or attacked the Mission. But they gradually abandoned it during the 1820s, due to crop failures, drought, floods, and Spanish settlers who coveted the Mission’s land. The buildings began to deteriorate from lack of maintenance.
After winning independence from Spain, the Mexican government “secularized” (their official euphemism for “appropriated”) all the missions in 1834. The Franciscans were sent back to Spain, and the former church land went to favored cronies who dismantled the missions for construction materials. Mexican Alta California became American territory in 1848, and a state in 1850. President Lincoln returned the what was left of the California missions to the Catholic Church in 1865.
At the end of the 19th century, the Mission underwent just enough inept repairs to serve as a parish church. Serious restoration began when Father St. John O’Sullivan arrived in 1910. He started with the Serra Chapel, fixing the collapsed roof, adding windows for light, and installing a 17th century baroque altarpiece from Barcelona. The altarpiece is much more ornate than the long-lost original. But Father Serra would probably feel right at home, were he somehow able to celebrate Mass in front of it.
Other additions Father O’Sullivan made in the 1920s include an ornamental arcade on the outside of the Serra Chapel, and a “Sacred Garden” behind the bell wall between the church ruins and the Serra Chapel. The four bells once occupied the campanile of the Great Stone Church. The two largest bells (cast in 1796) cracked when the campanile collapsed in the earthquake. Even though the bells no longer rang properly, the padres installed them in the wall they built in 1813. In 2000, ringable replicas cast from the original molds finally replaced the damaged bells in the wall. The original bells now hang in a frame where the campanile once stood.
Numerous trees and two large Moorish-style fountains stocked with water lilies and koi completed the restoration. These were not features of the original Mission, as the main courtyard was then a dirt work area for “mission industries.” Father O’Sullivan may have drawn inspiration from the Spanish Colonial Revival craze that began in 1915 with San Diego’s Balboa Park, and then swept through Southern California. O’Sullivan died in 1933. He is buried next to the Serra Chapel, beneath a monument he erected to honor the mission’s original builders, in the cemetery he shares with some two thousand Indians.
Six guardian angels, in the form of automated red light cameras, continuously watch over the main intersections near the mission. If you’re inclined to suspect that their benefit to the city goes beyond traffic safety, you might consider riding a train instead of driving. San Juan Capistrano is a stop on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner that runs from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and San Diego. It’s also on the route of Metrolink commuter trains that run to and from Los Angeles. Both operate frequently enough to be practical transportation options.
The 1894 Santa Fe Railway Depot is one of the very few remaining brick train stations. Designed in the “Mission Revival” style with a 12-meter-high dome and bell, the builders may have taken that architectural term literally. It quite likely is made of bricks and wood pilfered from the Mission. The depot is now a restaurant, but the current Amtrak/Metrolink station is only a few meters away from it. It’s an easy walk from there to the Mission.