Franciscan Spirit Blog

San Juan Capistrano: Jewel of the California Missions

The charming ruins of the Great Stone Church and the beautifully preserved structures of this once-glorious “Jewel of the Missions,” convey a rich but tragic history. Junípero Serra founded it on All Saints Day 1776 as the seventh of the California missions. San Juan Capistrano flourished with a neophyte population of 1,361 at its peak. A main quadrangle encompassed a chapel, living quarters, kitchen, workshops, storerooms, soldiers’ barracks, and other ancillary buildings, while the outlying fields yielded abundant harvests of grains, corn, beans, peas, and lentils, and livestock on the open range.

The natives of the region are the Acjachemen people. They lived prosperously for thousands of years in small villages along the coastlands. Father Geronimo Boscana, who was the resident priest at Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1814 to 1826, has written the earliest account of the customs and religion of the Acjachemen.

The mission was actually founded twice. In 1775, the site had been chosen, the cross set up, the bells rung, and the ground dedicated. Then, after construction had been underway for eight days, news arrived of the Indian attack on the San Diego mission. The work stopped, the bells were hastily buried, and the small group hurried to take shelter at the San Diego presidio. The next year, when peace was assured, Father Serra found the cross still in place, dug up the bells and hung them from a tree, and sang the founding ritual.

An adobe church, proudly known today as the Serra Chapel, was constructed in 1782. It is the oldest standing building in California and is today the only remaining California church in which Saint Junípero Serra offered Mass. By 1796, this small adobe church became too small for the growing number of Indians at the mission, and work was begun on the Great Stone Church. But tragically, only six years after its completion, it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1812.

In 1818, the mission was attacked by pirates. The French pirate Hipólito Bouchard sailed his two ships within sight of the mission and demanded provisions. The garrison of Spanish soldiers refused his request and threatened “an immediate supply of shot and shell” if the ships did not sail away. In response, Bouchard ordered an assault on the mission, sending 140 men with two or three light cannons to take the supplies by force. The mission guards engaged the attackers but were overwhelmed as the marauders looted the warehouses and left minor damages to the buildings in their wake.


A Mission in Crisis

The 1820s and 1830s saw a gradual decline in the mission’s prosperity after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Disease thinned out the once-ample cattle herds, and floods and droughts took their toll on the crops. But the biggest threat to the mission’s stability came from the presence of Spanish settlers who sought to take over the mission’s fertile lands after it was secularized. By 1842, the natives and Franciscans had left the mission, and it gradually decayed, as many of the tiles and timbers were plundered by the settlers. In 1865, President Lincoln returned the mission to the Church.

Saint John O’Sullivan arrived in 1910 as the first resident priest in some twenty years, becoming rector in 1914. He spent many years working to restore the mission a section at a time, charging a ten-cent admission fee to help defray preservation costs. O’Sullivan died in 1933 and is buried in the mission cemetery at the foot of a Celtic cross.

The swallows of Capistrano are the most popular feature of the mission. These cliff swallows spend the summer on the grounds, building their nests of saliva and mud and protecting their young inside the ruins of the old stone church. A 1915 article in Overland Monthly magazine made note of the birds’ annual habit of nesting beneath the eaves and archways of the mission. The mission’s location near two rivers made it an ideal spot, as there was a constant supply of the insects on which they feed. Fr. O’Sullivan utilized public interest in the phenomenon to generate concern for the restoration efforts, and the swallows became the defining symbol of the mission. The birds fly south to Argentina every year around October 23, the Feast of Saint John of Capistrano, and return to nest at the mission near March 19, the Feast of Saint Joseph.

The songwriter Leon René was so inspired by this phenomenon that he composed the song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” which was performed by many artists in the coming decades. A glassed-off room in the mission honors René, displaying the upright piano on which he composed the tune, furniture from his office, and several copies of the song’s sheet music. Each year the Fiesta de las Golondrinas (swallows) is held in the city of San Juan Capistrano, a week-long celebration culminating in the Swallows Day Parade and street fair. Patron of the Mission San Juan de Capistrano (Saint John of Capistrano) was chosen by the Spanish viceroy and Fr. Serra as patron of the mission. As a Franciscan priest and powerful preacher, he attracted great throngs throughout Europe. He is also remembered, along with Saint Bernardine of Siena, as a reformer of the Franciscan order.

John was born in the Italian town of Capistrano, Abruzzo, in 1386. He studied law at the University of Perugia and practiced as a lawyer in the courts of Naples. He was then appointed governor of Perugia in order to establish public order there. When war broke out between Perugia and the Malatesta family of Rimini in 1416, John was sent to broker a peace, but instead he was thrown in prison. During the captivity, he had a vision in which Saint Francis of Assisi invited him to enter the Franciscan order. He made his religious profession in the order and became a student and follower of Saint Bernardine of Siena. After his ordination, John began his brilliant preaching apostolate, traveling throughout Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. He was sent as a papal legate to resolve many disputes throughout Europe. At the age of seventy, John was commissioned by Pope Callistus III to preach and lead a crusade against the invading Turks, who were threatening Vienna and Rome.

Marching at the head of seventy thousand Christians, he gained victory in the great battle of Belgrade in 1456. The city was saved and the enemy withdrew. Three months later, he died at Ilok, Hungary (in today’s Croatia), on October 23, which became his feast day. He was especially popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is usually depicted wearing a Franciscan habit and a breastplate. Often he carries a sword and a red banner with the monogram of the Holy Name of Jesus, IHS, inspired by Saint Bernardine. In addition to being patron of this mission, he is the patron of jurists. On the saint’s tomb in the Austrian town of Villach, the governor had this message inscribed: “This tomb holds John, by birth of Capistrano, a man worthy of all praise, defender and promoter of the faith, guardian of the Church, herald of Christ, zealous protector of his order, an ornament to all the world, lover of truth and religious justice, mirror of life, surest guide in doctrine; praised by countless tongues, he reigns blessed in heaven.”


Mission Bells

To the right of the mission’s main entrance is a campanario with four bells, which continue to be rung with hand-held ropes. When the Great Stone Church collapsed in the earthquake of 1812, the four surviving bells from the high tower were placed in this bell wall. The two largest bells were cracked and did not produce clear tones, so in 2000 they were taken down, used as molds, and replaced by duplicates. Standing in front of the church ruins, a display with two large bells sits on the footprint of the original bell tower of the Great Stone Church.

These are the original bells, cast in 1796. A close inspection shows their damage from the earthquake as well as the inscriptions dedicating them to San Vicente and San Juan. Mission Church All that remains of the Great Stone Church are its mellowed ruins located to the right of the main entrance to the mission. The standing masonry comprises only a small fragment of the original church, which was the largest and most beautiful of all the mission churches. The church was designed in the shape of a cross, and the sandstone building sat on a foundation seven feet deep. Boulders and stones were quarried and hauled from up to six miles away, and construction continued for nine long years. The completed church was 180 feet long, and the walls were fifty-two feet in height. 

The tall bell tower soared above the church. Local legend has it that the tower could be seen for ten miles and that the bells could be heard from even farther away. The church was finally completed in 1806. Its splendid dedication ceremony was followed by a three-day fiesta to celebrate the monumental event. But tragedy struck on the morning of December 8, 1812, when a series of large earthquakes shook all of southern California. The shaking racked the doors to the church, pinning them shut. Most of the nave came crashing down, and the bell tower was completely obliterated. Forty native worshipers who were attending Mass and two boys who had been ringing the bells in the tower were buried under the rubble and lost their lives.

Mass for the mission was offered thereafter in the older adobe chapel, which may be entered today from the section of the quadrangle closest to the bell wall and ruins. This lovely chapel is today dedicated to Saint Junípero Serra because it is the only standing California church where the saint is known to have celebrated Mass. The mission registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials are all intact and preserved, as is the confirmation register. These provide historical proof that Fr. Serra visited the mission in 1776, 1778, and 1783. 

He administered the sacrament of confirmation in October of 1783, less than a year before he died, confirming 221 individuals in this chapel. The centerpiece of the chapel is its spectacular retablo that serves as the backdrop for the altar. A masterpiece of Baroque art, it was created in seventeenth-century Barcelona. The altarpiece was hand-carved from hundreds of individual pieces of mahogany and cedar, then overlaid in gold leaf. It was originally imported in 1806 for the Los Angeles cathedral but was never used. It was later donated to the mission and installed sometime between 1922 and 1924. 

The five figures in the niches are the following: Saint John of Capistrano at the top, holding the red banner, Saint Peter and Saint Michael the Archangel on the upper left and right, and Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare of Assisi on the lower left and right. There is a prayer room within the chapel dedicated to Saint Peregrine, the patron saint of those who suffer from cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The baptismal font near the entry was rescued from the Great Stone Church. Along the walls hang original eighteenth-century Stations of the Cross, and a painting of John of Capistrano from the eighteenth century hangs above one of the side doors. This ancient and beloved Serra Chapel is still a place of quiet prayer for those who visit the mission and a tangible memory of the holy saint. It remains in active use today, often the site of Catholic Masses, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Stephen J. Binz is a biblical scholar, award-winning author of over 40 books, psychotherapist, and popular speaker, offering keynotes, seminars, and workshops at national and regional conferences and churches. His latest book is Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to the California Missions.

Saint Junipero Serra's Camino


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