With the famed swallows’ return to Capistrano, the importance of tradition takes a higher profile.
For over eight decades the season of homecoming has been celebrated at this mission on St. Joseph’s Day, or Swallows Day. The tradition started here first, at California Landmark #200 and Orange County’s only mission. Back in the 1920s when Father O’Sullivan decided to commemorate the birds’ homecoming with a party, song and dance from Mission School students, and the crowning of royal court for the festivities, he aligned both what would become a secular and liturgical celebration that ultimately would propel Mission San Juan Capistrano to world renown status.
In the 1930s after the tradition had gained traction in the community, song writer Leon Rene composed his chart-topping hit, “When the Swallows Come Back To Capistrano.” From there, generations of Americans came to visit the place the birds called home for decades to come. The idea of reunited love, homecoming and freedom was underscored with the song’s lyrics, its melancholy melody played to the hearts and minds of veterans, lovers, and families separated by miles. My maternal grandmother Harriett and her mother Frida surely saw a visit to the Mission as a highlight of a longed-for visit to California, and most likely came to associate “The Song” as one correlating to their younger days; days filled with promise. “The Song” in a roundabout way perhaps contributed to the idea of their relocating from Nebraska to California to experience the post-war era good life, and the opportunity of the sunshine state.
Today, those World War II generations have all but disappeared. Occasionally we get a Korean War veteran (who with his bright ball cap that proclaims his steadfast patriotism) invites me to ask about his service. During these special conversations I am transported to his past where he tells me of his first visit to the Mission “way back when.” He might share with me how he visited the Mission before he left for service or it was the first place he came to see with his new bride after the war. Sometimes I hear that it is the first place he visited after the passing of his wife. Or the place he proposed marriage. The stories are heartfelt and real. No Disney scripts here.
From my vantage point in the 21st century I can see that “The Song” has in no doubt raised awareness of this Mission, helped to preserve it, and in turn brought with it a responsibility to serve guests of all ages from all over the world. “The Song” is one of the key factors in a tradition that has lasted. And even with tradition there is sometimes change. This year, the bell ringing tradition is elevated with the ringers wearing a hand woven Chimayo vest made just from them. The official vests feature each ringer’s own personal color in a pattern that they all share. There is a small bell on the back of each vest to reflect the Mission, and there are real nickel buttons with the “Indian side up” for the Native American bell ringers, and the “Buffalo side up” for the non-native Americans. The inside of each vest is embroidered with a special dedication to each bell ringer. Simply put, the vest is a living artifact to be worn with serious respect for the position. Our bell ringers Mike, Rafael and Nathan will proudly wear their new attire in a nod to a tradition that continues to inspire.
As the bell ringers celebrated the return of the swallows to our valley, we remembered the past, the role of Leon Rene and the good idea of Father O’Sullivan to start a celebration. In doing this, we take time to thank the birds, our avian ambassadors, whose fork-tailed image symbolizes worldwide the idea of freedom, faith and home coming.
Mechelle Lawrence Adams
The Mission Preservation Foundation Board includes:
Reverend Monsignor J. Michael McKiernan
Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano