Mission San Juan Capistrano – located in California’s idyllic Orange County – is a place of incredible historical, cultural and religious significance, as well as a place of inspiration and education. One of the most picturesque sites in California, the Mission is famous for its beautiful ruins, breathtaking gardens, and much celebrated annual avian migration.
When we moved to Southern California from Germany and Scotland (respectively) in 2012, we – self-professed and very enthusiastic “history nerds” – were determined to continue practicing one of our favorites hobbies: exploring important historical sites. There are few places in the western United States as noteworthy and well-preserved as the twenty-one missions of Alta California. Spanning 600 miles along El Camino Real from San Diego to San Francisco, these former religious outposts offer incredible insight into Spanish colonialism in the New World, as well as the regional growth and expansion of Catholicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They also document – in sometimes graphic and horrifying detail – the missionaries’ efforts to educate, convert and “civilize” the indigenous population.
We made two trips to Mission San Juan Capistrano – now a museum and active Catholic parish – over the three years we lived in San Diego, and greatly enjoyed the experience on both occasions. The photographs featured in this post were taken on a sometimes-gloomy March afternoon, on a two hour visit with B.’s parents.
The story of Mission San Juan Capistrano begins in October 1775, when La Misión de San Juan Capistrano de Sajavit was founded by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order. The site was abandoned within mere weeks, however, after nearby Mission San Diego de Alcalá – 65 miles to the south – reported violent unrest in the indigenous Kumeyaay population. One year later, Father Junipero Serra returned to the abandoned site in the company of two padres and eleven Spanish soldiers, founding the mission for a second time on All Saint’s Day, November 1, 1776.
Mission San Juan Capistrano thus became the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in Alta California from 1769 to 1833. Like the previous six missions, San Juan Capistrano was established to expand the northern and western territorial boundaries of New Spain, and to spread Christianity to the indigenous peoples of California. In addition to Catholicism, the missionaries introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching and technology to the region; however, the missions also brought serious negative consequences to the native populations with whom the missionaries and other Spaniards came into contact.
The indigenous peoples of the San Juan and San Mateo Creeks region – known as Acjachemen, and later, as Juaneño – first came to the Mission because they were curious about Spanish forms of technology, as well as new animals, foods and ideas. As the native peoples interacted with the Spanish, they soon came to realize the padres desired their conversion to Christianity. Whether they fully understood it or not, those that consented to baptism joined the Mission community, establishing a life-long contract with the Spaniards. Not only did the baptized receive a new Christian name, they also agreed to new rules and lifestyle changes. After instruction in the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, the padres taught the indigenous converts – labeled neophytes, or new believers – the Spanish language, a new set of craft skills, and European and Christian social customs. The neophytes were strictly forbidden from leaving the mission grounds without permission, from speaking native languages, and from practicing their indigenous beliefs. Large-scale military expeditions were carried out to capture both mission runaways and potential new converts.
Over the next 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew in population, buildings, livestock, and prominence. By 1806, the Mission had a population of over 1,000 people, over 10,000 head of cattle, and a magnificent architectural achievement in the Great Stone Church. After 1812, however, the Mission fell into gradual decline. Many factors contributed to its deterioration. A devastating and deadly earthquake in December 1812 caused major portions of the Great Stone Church to collapse (read below for more information). 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. Declining birth rates and increasing mortality rates significantly reduced the Mission’s population. Over time, disillusioned neophytes abandoned the settlement; without regular maintenance, its physical decay continued at an accelerated rate.
By 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, which made Alta California a territory of Mexico. Under new governmental control, the Mission faced continued decline. In 1834, the Mexican government ended the mission system entirely. Soon after the decree of secularization, or the ending of the missions, the land holdings of Mission San Juan Capistrano were confiscated, divided and sold to 20 prominent California families. In 1845, the Mission in its entirety was sold at auction to Englishman John Forster, Governor Pio Pico’s brother-in-law, for $710, despite being valued at nearly $55,000 in 1834. For the next 20 years the Mission was a private ranch property of the Forster family.
Mission San Juan Capistrano saw yet another government take over California when the United States won the Mexican American War in 1848. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California and other western territories were ceded to the United States. After statehood was declared in 1850, many California dioceses and parishioners petitioned the federal government to have mission buildings and lands returned to the church. Indeed, many Californians were saddened by the state of the missions, some of which had been turned into stores, bars, inns, or even stables. Most were falling apart and few were properly maintained.
President Abraham Lincoln responded to the petitioners by giving back the missions to the Catholic Church in March 1865. By the 1870s and early 1900s, artists, photographers, and visionaries took interest in the abandoned missions. Many wealthy individuals formed groups to campaign for restoration. The Landmarks Club, led by Charles Lummis and resident padre Father John O’Sullivan were Mission San Juan Capistrano’s greatest proponents of preservation. From the 1910s to 1940s, a great deal of preservation work took place.
Preservation efforts at the Mission continue, with the help of donations each year. Although the Mission is owned by the Catholic Church, it is run by a non-profit organization, and depends entirely on the generous contributions of visitors and benefactors. San Juan Capistrano hosts various concerts and special events throughout the year, including the Fiesta de las Golondrinas, celebrating the annual migration of the American cliff swallow from Argentina to the Mission site. The Mission also opens its doors to visitors daily, from 9am to 5pm* (closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day).
The ruins of San Juan Capistrano’s ‘Great Stone Church’ serve as a stark and haunting reminder of the Mission’s sometimes tragic history. Work began on the structure – the only chapel in Alta California not constructed of adobe – in early 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 bell tower located adjacent to the main mission entrance. Stones were quarried from gullies and creek beds up to six miles away and transported in carts drawn by oxen, carried by hand, or dragged to the building site. On the afternoon of November 22, 1800, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake in nearby San Diego produced cracks in the edifice, necessitating repair work. Unfortunately, reconstruction was carried out by mostly unskilled and unsupervised laborers following the death of the Mission’s maestro albañil (master stonemason), resulting in the formation of irregular walls. The church was finally completed in 1806. Contemporary accounts suggest the campanile could be seen from a distance of 10 miles, and was widely regarded as the most significant architectural achievement in Alta California.
A mere six years later, however, tragedy struck the Mission settlement. On December 8, 1812, during early morning services to celebrate the ‘Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin’, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck San Juan Capistrano. The force of the tremor pinned the church’s doors closed, trapping its occupants – forty native Juaneño worshipers and two young bell ringers – inside. When the earth finally stopped shaking, bystanders looked on in horror as the bulk of the nave crumbled and the bell tower collapsed. All those inside lost their lives, and were subsequently interred in the Mission’s cemetery, some in unmarked graves.
As the transept, sanctuary and sacristy remained standing, an attempt was made to rebuild the Great Stone Church in 1815. The project was ultimately abandoned, however, due to a lack of construction expertise. In 1860, another abortive attempt at reconstruction resulted in the church’s further disintegration, including the collapse of domes over the sanctuary and transept. The sacristy is the only feature of the structure still intact today.
Within a year of the 1812 earthquake, a brick campanario (“bell wall”) was 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 bell tower.
The four bells of the campanario can also be viewed from the peaceful confines of the Mission’s ‘Sacred Garden’, developed in 1920.
The two largest bells in the tower – known as San Vicente and San Juan – were severely damaged in its collapse, cracking and splitting open. Due to this damage, neither produces a clear sound. Regardless, they remain on display in the footprint of the original campanile.
The Mission grounds are breathtakingly beautiful year-round, thanks in large part to a troop of dedicated gardeners and Southern California’s virtually endless sunshine. Although ornamental plants have grown at San Juan Capistrano since its founding, the majority of the gardens had a utilitarian purpose in the mission-era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Crops were developed for food and trade, and herbs grown for flavoring and medicinal use. Today, fragrant citrus trees, verdant fountains and vibrant flowers are popular features for visitors, birds and insects.
We found the Mission’s central courtyard a particularly peaceful place for a quiet stroll or walking meditation. The courtyard also offers access to the Serra Chapel (the oldest building in California still in use) and various museum exhibits featuring historical information, church vestments, and detailed descriptions of once-thriving Mission industries, including the production of wine and tallow.
Thank you for viewing! – T. and B. June
Next week’s journey: University of Oxford – England