Mission San Juan Capistrano

From Academic Kids

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A view of Mission San Juan Capistrano in April, 2005. At left is the façade of the first adobe church with its added espadaña. Behind the campanario, or "bell wall" is the Mission's "Sacred Garden." The Mission has earned a reputation as the "Loveliest of the Franciscan Ruins."

Mission San Juan de Capistrano (today known simply as Mission San Juan Capistrano), the "Jewel of the Missions," was founded on All Saint’s Day (November 1), 1776 by Father Presidente Junípero Serra. The seventh in the California mission chain, its namesake was theologian Saint John of Capestrano (http://www.comunedicapestrano.it/), in the Abruzzi region of Italy.

One of the best known of the Missions, the success of the settlement at San Juan Capistrano is evident in its historical records. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries some 550 natives were scattered throughout the local area; in 1790 the number of converted Christians had grown to 700, and just six years later nearly 1,000 "neophytes" (recent converts) lived in or around the Mission compound. 1,649 baptisms were conducted that year alone, out of the total 4,430 souls converted throughout the Mission's lifetime.

An estimated 2,000 former inhabitants (mostly Indians) are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission's cemetery (campo santo), as are the remains of Father St. John O'Sullivan, the man credited with recognizing the property's historic value and working tirelessly to conserve and rebuild its structures. The one surviving chapel also serves as the final resting place of three padres who passed on while serving at the Mission: Father José Barona, Father Vincent Fuster, and Father José Rafael Oliva are all entombed beneath the sanctuary floor.

The Mission entered a long period of gradual decline after secularization in 1833. Numerous efforts were made over the years to restore the Mission to its former glory, but none met with great success until the arrival of Father O'Sullivan in 1910. Restoration efforts continue to this day, and the chapel of "Father Serra's Church" is still used for religious services, and over half a million people visit the landmark every year.

In 1984 a modern church complex was constructed just north and west of the Mission compound; the design is patterned after the old stone church. Its 85-foot high main rotunda and 104-foot high bell tower make it the tallest building in town. Pope John Paul II conferred the rank of Minor Basilica to this facility on February 14, 2000.


Mission history

The Spanish (Mission) Era (1776 – 1820)

The Mission site was chosen as a logical halfway point between San Gabriel and San Diego, situated within the First Military District. Actually, the Mission was founded twice; the site was originally consecrated by Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén and Father Gregório Amúrrio on October 30, 1775 near an Indian settlement named Sajivit. Eight days later Mission San Diego de Alcalá came under Indian attack. Since it was feared at the time that any hostile action by the natives against the few burgeoning outposts might break Spain's tenuous hold on Alta California, the fathers quickly buried the San Juan Capistrano Mission bells and the expedition returned to the San Diego presidio in order to quell the uprising.

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A statue of Father Junípero Serra and an Indian boy, sculpted by Tole van Rensalaar. The work was commissioned in 1914 by Father St. John O'Sullivan to depict the meeting of the two cultures.

One year later Fathers Serra and Lasuén returned to once again begin work on the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. They uncovered the bells and discovered that a wooden cross that had been erected during the original dedication was still standing. However, due to an inadequate water supply the Mission site was relocated approximately three miles to the west near another Indian village, this one called Acágcheme. The new venue was strategically placed above two nearby streams, the Trabuco and the San Juan. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel provided cattle and neophyte labor to assist in the development of new the Mission.

In 1778 the first adobe capilla (chapel) was blessed. It was replaced by a larger, 115-foot long house of worship in 1782, which is believed to be the oldest standing building in California. Known proudly as "Father Serra’s Church," it has the distinction of being the only remaining church in which the padre is known to have officiated (he presided over the confirmations of 213 people on October 12 and 13, 1783). Divine services are held there to this day. By that time living quarters, kitchens, workshops, storerooms, soldiers’ barracks (cuartels), and a number of other ancillary buildings had also been erected, effectively forming the main cuadrángulo (quadrangle).

California’s first vineyard was located on the Mission grounds, with the planting of the "Mission" or "Criollo" grape in 1779, one grown extensively throughout Spanish America at the time but with "an uncertain European origin." It was the only grape grown in the Mission system throughout the mid-1800s. The first winery in Alta California was built in San Juan Capistrano in 1783; both red and white wines (sweet and dry), and brandy were all produced from the Mission grape.

In 1791 the Mission's two original bells were removed from the tree branch on which they had been hanging for the previous fifteen years and placed within a permanent mounting. Over the next two decades the Mission prospered, and in 1794 over seventy adobe structures were built in order to provide permanent housing for the Mission Indians, some of which comprise the oldest residential neighborhood in California. It was decided that a larger, European-style church was required to accommodate the growing population. Hoping to construct an edifice of truly magnificent proportions, the padres retained the services of expert Mexican stonemason Isidoro Aguílar. Aguílar took charge of the church’s construction and set about incorporating numerous design features not found at any other California Mission, including the use of a domed roof structure made of stone as opposed to the typical flat wood roof. His elegant roof design called for six vaulted domes (bovedas) to be built.

Work was begun on "The Great Stone Church" on February 2, 1797. It was laid out in the shape of a cross, measuring 180 feet long by 40 feet wide with 50-foot high walls, and included a 120-foot tall campanile ("bell tower") located adjacent to the main entrance that could be seen for miles around. The building sat on a foundation seven feet thick. Construction efforts required the participation of the entire neophyte population. Stones were quarried from gullies and creek beds up to six miles away and transported in carts (carretas) drawn by oxen, carried by hand, and even dragged to the building site. Limestone was crushed into a powder on the Mission grounds to create a mortar that was more erosion-resistant than the actual stones.

Unfortunately, Señor Aguílar passed away six years into the project. His work was carried on by the padres and their charges, who made their best attempts to emulate the existing construction. Lacking the skills of a master mason, however, led to irregular walls and necessitated the addition of a seventh roof dome. The church was finally completed in 1806, and blessed by Fray Estévan Tapís on the evening of September 7th. The sanctuary floors were paved with diamond-shaped tiles, and brick-lined niches displayed the statues of various saints. It was by all accounts the most magnificent in all of California and a three-day feast was held in celebration of this monumental achievement.

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A close-up view of the majestic ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano's "Great Stone Church," dubbed the "American Acropolis" in reference to its classical Greco-Roman style.

Tragedy struck the settlement when on December 8, 1812 (the "Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin") a series of massive earthquakes shook Southern California during the first Sunday service. Twelve years earlier a minor earth tremor had hit, causing only superficial damage to the work in progress. The 1812 Wrightwood Earthquake (http://www.data.scec.org/chrono_index/wrightwd.html) racked the doors to the church, pinning them shut. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the bulk of the nave had come crashing down, and the bell tower was completely obliterated. Forty-two worshippers from the local Ahachamai Indian band (referred to as Juaneños by the Spaniards) who were attending mass were buried under the rubble and lost their lives, and were subsequently interred in the Mission cemetery. This was the second major setback the outpost had suffered, and followed severe storms and flooding that damaged Mission buildings and ruined crops earlier in the year.

The padres immediately returned to holding services in Serra’s Church. Within a year a brick campanario ("bell wall") had been erected between the ruins of the stone church and the Mission's first chapel to support the four bells salvaged from the rubble of the campanile. As the transept, sanctuary (reredos), and sacristia (sacristy) were all left standing, an attempt was made to rebuild the stone church in 1815 which failed due to a lack of construction expertise (the latter is the only element that is completely intact today). Consequently, all of the construction work undertaken at the Mission grounds thereafter was of a strictly utilitarian nature.

Father José Barona and Father Gerónimo Boscana oversaw the construction of a small infirmary (hospital) building (located just outside the northwestern corner of the quadrangle) in 1814, "for the convenience of the sick." It is here that Indian medicine men used traditional methods to heal the sick and injured. Archaeological excavations in 1937 and 1979 unearthed what are believed to be the building’s foundations.

On December 14, 1818 the French privateer Hipólito Bouchard, flying an Argentinian flag, sailed his ships Argentine and Santa Rosa to within sight of the Mission and sent forth an envoy with a demand for provisions. The garrison soldiers were aware that Bouchard (California'a only pirate) had recently conducted raids on the settlements at Monterey and Santa Barbara, so the demand was rebuffed and threats of reprisals against the pirate band were made. In response, Bouchard ordered an assault on the Mission, sending some 140 men and a trio of cannon to take the needed supplies by force. The Mission guards engaged the attackers but were overwhelmed, and the privateers left several damaged buildings in their wake, including the Governor's house, the King's stores, and the barracks.

The Mexican (Rancho) Era (1821 – 1847)

A -style fountain inside Mission San Juan Capistrano's central courtyard, built in the  through the efforts of Father St. John O’Sullivan.
A Moorish-style fountain inside Mission San Juan Capistrano's central courtyard, built in the 1920s through the efforts of Father St. John O’Sullivan.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The 1820s and 30s saw a gradual decline in the Mission’s status. Disease thinned out the once ample cattle herds, and a sudden infestation of mustard weed made it increasingly difficult to cultivate crops. Floods and droughts took their toll as well. But the biggest threat to the Mission’s stability came from the presence of Spanish settlers who sought to take over the Capistrano’s fertile lands. Over time the disillusioned Indian population gradually left the Mission, and without regular maintenance its physical deterioration continued at an accelerated rate.

Nevertheless, there was sufficient activity along El Camino Real to justify the construction of the Las Flores Asistencia in 1823. This facility, situated halfway between San Juan Capistrano and the Mission at San Luís Rey, was intended to act primarily as a rest stop for traveling clergy. During the same period the Diego Sepúlveda Adobe was established as an estancia (way-station) for the vaqueros (cowboys) who tended the Mission herds, in what today is the City of Costa Mesa. Following secularization, ownership passed to Don Diego Sepúlveda.

The Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the very first to feel the effects of this legislation the following year. The Franciscans abandoned the Mission, taking with them most everything of value, after which the locals plundered the Mission buildings for construction materials.

San Juan Capistrano was officially designated as a secular Mexican pueblo in 1841, at which time those few who still resided at the Mission were granted sections of land to use as their own. Four years later the Mission property was auctioned off under questionable circumstances for $710 worth of tallow and hides to Englishman John "Don Juan" Forster (Governor Pío Pico's brother-in-law, whose family would take up residence in the Friars' quarters for the next twenty years) and his partner James McKinley. More families would subsequently take up residence in other portions of the Mission buildings.

California Statehood (1850 - 1900)

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Father José Mut's dining room as it is thought to have looked during his twenty-year stay at the Mission.

In 1860 an abortive attempt at restoring the stone church was the cause of its additional disintegration, forcing the dome over the transept and its cupola (lantern house) to collapse. A smallpox epidemic swept through the area in 1862, nearly wiping out the remaining Juaneño Indians.

President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation on March 18, 1865 that returned ownership of the Mission proper to the Catholic Church. The Mission's sole resident from 1866 to 1886 was its pastor, Father José Mut. Father Mut made certain changes in order to accommodate his own needs, but little was accomplished to prevent further deterioration of the Mission buildings. By 1891 a roof collapse required that the Serra Chapel be abandoned completely. Modifications were made to the original adobe church (including the addition of a cross-topped espadaña at the south end, a feature that has been retained in the present iteration of the Mission compound) in order to render it suitable for use as a parish church.

In 1895 a group calling itself the Landmarks Club of Los Angeles made the first real efforts at preserving the Mission and restoring it to its original state in over fifty years. Debris was cleared away and new roofs were placed over a few of the derelict buildings.

The 20th Century and beyond (1901 - present)

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The early Baroque-style retablo (altarpiece) situated at the north-end sanctuary of "Father Serra’s Church" is thought to be 350 years old. This beautiful furnishing is made up of 196 pieces of hand-carved cherry wood that are overlaid with gold leaf. It was originally imported from Barcelona, Spain in 1806 and later donated by Archbishop John Cantwell of Los Angeles. The building had to be enlarged to accommodate this piece.

After Father Mut's departure in 1886 the parish found itself without a permanent pastor, and the Mission languished during this period. Father St. John O'Sullivan arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910 to recuperate from a recent illness. He became fascinated by the scope of the Mission and soon set to work on rebuilding it a section at a time. Father O'Sullivan's first task was to repair the roof of the Serra Chapel, using Sycamore logs to match those that were used in the original work. In the process the roof of the apse was raised to allow for the inclusion of a window so that natural light could be brought into the space. Other refurbishments were made as time and funds permitted. Arthur B. Benton, a Los Angeles architect, strengthened the chapel walls through the addition of heavy masonry buttresses.

It is rumored that silent film star Mary Pickford's secret marriage to fellow actor Owen Moore in 1911 took place in the Mission chapel. Severe flooding destroyed a portion of the Mission’s front arcade in 1915, and heavy storms a year later washed away one end of the barracks building, which Father O'Sullivan rebuilt in 1917, incorporating minor modifications such as an ornamental archway in order to make the edifice more closely resemble a church. On April 21, 1918 the San Jacinto Earthquake (http://www.data.scec.org/chrono_index/sanj1918.html) resulted in moderate structural damage to some of the buildings.

In 1920 the "Sacred Garden" was created in the courtyard adjacent to the stone church, and in 1925 the full restoration of the Serra Chapel was completed. Father O'Sullivan passed away in 1933 and was buried in the Mission cemetery. His tomb lies at the foot of a Celtic cross the Father himself erected as a memorial to the Mission's builders.

In 1937 representatives of the U.S. National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, as a part of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 (http://www.cr.nps.gov/local-law/FHPL_HistSites.pdf), surveyed and photographed the grounds and structures extensively. Their efforts laid the groundwork for future excavation and reconstruction of the west wing industrial complex.

The prestigious World Monuments Fund placed "The Great Stone Church" on its List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2002. 2004 saw the most recent series of seismic retrofits at the Mission completed.

Mission industries

The Missions were, above all, required to become self-sufficient in relatively short order. Farming, therefore, was the most important industry of any mission. Barley, maize, and wheat were the principal crops grown at San Juan Capistrano; cattle, horses, mules, sheep, and goats were all raised by the hundreds as well. In 1790 the Mission's herd included 7,000 sheep and goats, 2,500 cattle, and 200 mules and horses.

Olives were grown, cured, and pressed under large stone wheels to extract their oil, both for use at the Mission and to trade for other goods. Grapes were also grown and fermented into wine for sacramental use and again, for trading. Three long zanjas (aqueducts) ran through the central courtyard and deposited the water they collected into large cisterns in the industrial area, where it was filtered for drinking and cooking, or dispensed for use in cleaning.

Grains were dried and ground by stone into flour. The Mission's kitchens and bakeries prepared and served thousands of meals each day. Candles, soap, grease, and ointments were all made from tallow (rendered animal fat) in large vats located just outside the west wing. Also situated in this general area were vats for dyeing wool and tanning leather, and primitive looms for weavings. Large bodegas (warehouses) provided long-term storage for preserved foodstuffs and other treated materials.

A view of the  at Mission San Juan Capistrano, the oldest existing facilities (circa ) of their kind in the State of California.  The sign at the lower right-hand corner proclaims the site as being "...part of Orange County's first industrial complex."
A view of the Catalan forges at Mission San Juan Capistrano, the oldest existing facilities (circa 1790s) of their kind in the State of California. The sign at the lower right-hand corner proclaims the site as being "...part of Orange County's first industrial complex."

The Mission had to fabricate all of its construction materials as well. Workers in the carpintería (carpentry shop) used crude methods to shape beams, lintels, and other structural elements; more skilled artisans carved doors, furniture, and wooden implements. For certain applications bricks (ladrillos) were fired in ovens (kilns) to strengthen them and make them more resistant to the elements; when tejas (roof tiles) eventually replaced the conventional jacal roofing (densely-packed reeds) they were placed in the kilns to harden them as well. Glazed ceramic pots, dishes, and canisters were also made in the Mission's kilns.

Prior to the arrival of the missions, the native peoples knew only how to utilize bone, seashells, stone, and wood for building, tool making, weapons, and so forth. The foundry at Mission San Juan Capistrano was the first to introduce the Indians to the Iron Age. The blacksmith used the Mission’s Catalan furnaces (California’s first) to smelt and fashion iron into everything from basic tools and hardware (such as nails) to crosses, gates, hinges, even cannon for Mission defense. Iron was one commodity in particular that the Mission relied solely on trade to acquire, as the missionaries had neither the know-how nor the technology to mine and process metal ores.

The Mission bells

A view of Mission San Juan Capistrano's "Sacred Garden" developed in .  The four-bell campanario was erected a year after the bell tower at "The Great Stone Church" was toppled in an earthquake.
A view of Mission San Juan Capistrano's "Sacred Garden" developed in 1920. The four-bell campanario was erected a year after the bell tower at "The Great Stone Church" was toppled in an earthquake.

Bells were vitally important to daily life at any mission. The bells were rung at mealtimes, to call the Mission residents to work and to religious services, during births and funerals, to signal the approach of a ship or returning missionary, and at other times. All four of Mission San Juan Capistrano's bells are named and all bear inscriptions as follows (from the largest to the smallest; inscriptions are translated from Latin):

  • "Praised by Jesus, San Vicente. In honor of the Reverend Fathers, Ministers (of the Mission) Fray Vicente Fuster, and Fray Juan Santiago, 1796."
  • "Hail Mary most pure. Ruelas made me, and my name is San Juan, 1796."
  • "Hail Mary most pure, San Antonio, 1804."
  • "Hail Mary most pure, San Rafael, 1804."

In the aftermath of the 1812 earthquake, the two largest bells cracked and split open. Due to this damage neither produced clear tones. Regardless, they were hung in the campanario that went up the following year. In celebration of the new Mission church being elevated to Minor Basilica status in the year 2000, exact duplicates of the damaged bells were cast in Holland, utilizing molds made from the originals. The replacement bells were placed in the bell wall and the old ones put on display within the footprint of the destroyed Mission campanile.

On March 22, 1969 President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon visited the Mission and rang The Bell of San Rafael.

"The return of the swallows"

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Looking down the arcade at Mission San Juan Capistrano's old adobe chapel. Note that much of the plaster finish has come off, exposing the bricks beneath to the elements.

The Cliff Swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota) is a migratory bird that spends its winters in Goya, Argentina but makes the 6,000-mile trek north to the warmer climes of the American Southwest in springtime. According to legend the birds, who have visited the San Juan Capistrano area every Summer for centuries, first took refuge at the Mission when an irate innkeeper began destroying their mud nests. The Mission's location near two rivers made it an ideal location for the swallows to nest, as there was a constant supply of the insects on which they feed, and the young birds are well-protected inside the ruins of the old stone church.

Father O'Sullivan made note of the birds' annual habit of nesting beneath the Mission's eaves and archways, from Spring through Fall, during his two decades in residence. On March 13, 1939, a popular radio program was broadcast live from the Mission grounds, announcing the swallows' return. Composer Leon René was so inspired by the event that he penned the song When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano in tribute. During its initial release the song spent several weeks atop the Your Hit Parade charts. The song has been recorded by such musicians as The Ink Spots, Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller.

Each year the City of San Juan Capistrano sponsors the Fiesta de las Golondrinas, a week-long celebration of this auspicious event. Tradition has it that the main flock arrives on March 19 (Saint Joseph's Day), and flies south on Saint John's Day, October 23.

When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That's the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, "Farewell," in Capistrano
'twas the day the swallows flew out to sea
excerpt from When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano by Leon René

Historic designations


See also

External links

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An overall view of the "Jewel of the Missions" around the time of Father St. John O’Sullivan’s arrival in 1910.
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One of the earliest examples of "Mission Revival Style" architecture, the Sante Fe Railway depot in San Juan Capistrano (with its 40-foot high dome and bell) was considered to be one of the railroad's finest when it was completed on October 8, 1894.



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