Mission San Juan Capistrano Essay

A visit to any of California’s 21 restored Spanish Missions gives visitors a glimpse into the past that began much of the state’s history.  We  learned quite a bit about the missions last school year from my daughter’s California history lessons and visiting Mission Santa Barbara for her project.  She’s inspired to visit as many as she can and next on our tour was Mission San Juan Capistrano.  It is a historic landmark and  museum located in Orange County between San Diego and Los Angeles.

This was the 7th established of the California missions by the Spanish missionaries to spread Christianity to the Native Americans.  It was named after St.Giovanni da Capistrano, an Italian priest and crusader in the 15th century.  This was the only mission that was founded twice – in 1775 by Father Lausen and again by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.  It had to be abandoned when the Indians attacked the nearby San Diego mission.

It was called Jewel of the California Missions largely for its beauty and the extensive restorations it has undergone over the years.  The mission, at 10 acres, was actually a lot bigger than it looked from the outside.

You can’t help but marvel at its Spanish architecture built with adobe mud bricks and fired clay tile rooftops.  The arches and stone pathways and surrounding areas were made of stones, concrete and wood iron.

The main attraction of Mission San Juan Capistrano was the remnants of the Great Stone Church.  Completed in the early 1800s, it was a parish to over 1,000 people. The church was 180 feet long by 40 feet wide, five stories high with a majestic dome and a tall bell tower.  At one time, it was the largest stone structure in the west.

But, an earthquake destroyed the church in 1812 which also killed over 40 Indians. The church was never rebuilt and services moved to the chapel. The ruins seemed out of place in the middle of suburbia.
Some of the ceiling art was still visible. We could only imagine the splendor of this church that only stood for six years.

Adjacent to the church was a courtyard with a statue of Father Serra with a young Indian boy and a bell wall. The four bells were originally hung in the Great Stone Church’s bell tower and survived the earthquake.

We ventured inside the quadrangle which was typical of the missions and the hub of activities back then. What once was an area for weaving and sewing, the museum now occupies in the west wing.  The various rooms showed how life was like in the 1700s for the priests.

It was an immersion in history and culture. This was a depiction of their rooms with rope beds. It looked very uncomfortable and too small for adults to sleep in.  There were also various artifacts, documents, relics and paintings that survived for centuries.

The east wing had the Father Serra Chapel of 1777 which was the original mission chapel and believed to be the oldest church in California.  It was remarkably well-preserved.  The artwork on the walls and ceiling were beautiful.  The chapel was filled with statues, artifacts and paintings.  This was the only known building left where Father Serra said mass.

The stunning masterpiece behind the altar or retablo was the centerpiece of the chapel. It was made of cedar and covered with gold leaf and was carved by Spanish craftsman over 200 years ago.  In order to accommodate the retablo, the chapel roofs were raised instead of cutting any part of this artwork.  It was decorated with 52 angels – one for every Sunday of the year.
We saw many people go in and out of a special prayer room within the chapel dedicated to St Peregrine – patron saint of cancer sufferers.

One of the highlights for us was the gardens. Between the buildings were various well-maintained and lovely gardens to enjoy.  They were filled with native plants and vibrant blooms. We were here during late spring so it was pleasant and relaxing to sit down and admire the explosion of colors around us.  The delightful scents, mostly of lavender, filled the air.

There were two fountains filled with water lily blossoms. Huge Koi fish in various colors swam among the lily pads where kids can feed them for $1 a cup.  Plenty of butterflies and hummingbirds that darted among the flowers kept the kids entertained.  This was one of the prettiest gardens among the missions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is also well-known for the cliff swallows that live here.  Every year, the swallows leave in October to head south to Argentina for the winter and return every year around March 19.

Their timing is impeccable that a parade and festival happens every spring in the mission to welcome them back.  They spend their summers nesting here.  We only saw a couple during our visit and their mud nests tucked in the mission ceiling nooks.
Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano is an active parish and museum.  It is also one of the area’s main tourist attractions and where many students go for field trips for their California mission history.  The preserved historical structures and attractive, landscaped gardens create a wonderful experience and setting for all ages to visit.  It was a fascinating place and we saw why it was rightly named the Jewel of the  Missions.

Visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano Basics and Tips:

  • Audio Tours. Audio Tour Guides are available and included with Admission.  Kids get their own version of the audio guide. I actually liked their version better.  Exhibits throughout the mission are numbered corresponding to the audio on a device.  Available in 6 languages and kids are only in Enligsh and Spanish.
  • Guided Tours.  Daily and Weekend guided tours are available on a drop in basis.  Tour times are 11:15AM, 1:00, 2:15, 3:30 PM.  It is an additional cost of $3  adult/$2 per child.  Docent guided tours are also available where the docents are dressed in historical outfits. Availability is limited and must be reserved in advance.
  • Take the Train.  The mission is within walking distance from the Amtrak and Metrolink stations for those who want to visit and avoid the weekend  freeway traffic.  The Pacific coastal views from the train are very scenic and well worth the ride.
  • Mission Activities.  Check their events calendar and website for plenty of activities (usually on weekends) to keep the kids occupied.  How about some gold panning or adobe brick making?

*Have you explored Mission San Juan Capistrano or any of the other California Missions?

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Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally consecrated by Father Lasuen on October 19, 1775. But eight days later, word arrived that a revolt was occurring in San Diego; a group of natives had attacked and killed a missionary. The padres and soldiers buried the bells of San Juan, packed up their things and headed to the fort in San Diego for safekeeping. A year later, Father Serra and other Franciscans returned. The bells were still intact, and so was the cross they had erected at the site. They celebrated mass on All Saints Day, 1776, which is still celebrated as the official day of founding.

Father Serra’s Chapel, which was first used in 1782, is the second oldest building in California that is still in use. In 1796, construction began on a large stone church intended to be the most glorious of all the churches in California. Natives transported stones from a quarry six miles away to build the Great Stone Church, which was constructed in the shape of a cross 180 feet long and 40 feet wide. It was the only chapel in Alta California that was not made from adobe. According to legend, the tower can be seen for miles and the bells can be heard from even further away. The church was completed in 1806. Tragically, six years later, a series of massive earthquakes obliterated the bulk of the church and bell tower; it was the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and the church had been packed with worshipers. Forty-two were killed.

Real restoration only occurred much later, in the early 20th century. The walls and ceiling were refurbished and strengthened. A beautiful golden altar was installed at the north end. D.W. Griffith shot the film “The Two Brothers” at San Juan Capistrano; it was the first film ever shot in Orange County. In 1911, silent film star Mary Pickford wed actor Owen Moore in the chapel.

Due to the extensive earthquake damage the church has suffered, the World Monuments Fund placed the “Great Stone Church” on its list of 100 Most Endangered sites. However, restoration continues and hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the San Juan Capistrano every year. It is celebrated for its extensive gardens, which are lush and beautiful, particularly when juxtaposed against the weathered stone of the buildings.

In the spring, thousands of swallows travel thousands of miles from Central America to take up residence in the old church. Their arrival is commemorated with parades and fiestas. The Mission also hosts events that range from making clay pots, to festivals throughout the year.

Know Before You Go

From Highway 5 North or Highway 5 South, take the second San Juan Capistrano exit, which is Ortega Highway. Turn right off the freeway onto Ortega Highway. The Mission is straight ahead 2 ½ blocks on the right.Check out the Los Rios neighborhood close by and across the railroad tracks - it's one of the oldest neighborhoods in Alta California.

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