Mission San Juan Capistrano has been the home to many people over 230 years of history. Its history consists of memories and stories of its past inhabitants and present visitors. It is a place of historical, cultural, and religious significance, as well as a place of inspiration and education.
The story begins in 1775, when Mission San Juan Capistrano was first founded by Father Lasuen, on October 30th. But just a few weeks after the party of padres and soldiers arrived, they received word of the revolt occurring in San Diego. The founding padres, and soldiers decided to leave San Juan Capistrano, and go back to San Diego to help there. Once things had settled in San Diego, Saint Serra personally led a party to re-found Mission San Juan Capistrano on All Saint’s Day, November 1, 1776.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, became the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in Alta California. Like the previous six missions, San Juan Capistrano was established to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain, and to spread Christianity to the Native peoples of California. Unlike the British colonies on the East Coast of North America, who brought people from their homeland to form colonies, the Spanish believed they could transform the Native peoples into good Spanish citizens. The idea was to make colonial outposts called missions, led by Franciscan padres and Spanish soldiers. The missions would be a center of learning and training of Native peoples. The Spanish government and Catholic Church wanted to convert the people to Christianity, train them in Spanish or European lifestyle, so that the Native peoples would eventually live in towns and pay taxes, like good Spanish citizens.
In reality, the Spanish padres and soldiers had a huge task ahead of them. Moving into the frontier, making a community from scratch, and trying to communicate and convert the Native Americans was not an easy task.
Native Americans first came to the Mission because they were curious about the Spanish forms of technology, new animals, new food, and ideas. As the Native peoples interacted with the Spanish they soon realized the padres wanted them to convert to Christianity and join the Mission.
Whether they fully understood it or not, if the Native man or woman decided to be baptized, and join the Mission community, it became a symbol, or contract that showed their commitment and forever bonded them to the mission. Not only did the baptized individual receive a new Christian name, they also agreed to new rules and lifestyle changes. One condition of joining the Mission was that the converts could no longer leave the grounds without permission. The padres taught the Native American converts the Spanish language, a new set of craft skills, the religion Christianity, and European and Christian social customs.
For over the next 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew in population, buildings, livestock, and prominence. By 1806, Mission San Juan Capistrano had a population of over a 1,000 people, over 10,000 head of cattle, and a completed architectural gem, The Great Stone Church.
After 1812, the Mission began to decline. Many factors were involved in the Missions decline including the earthquake in December of 1812 which caused the Great Stone Church to collapse, the decline in birth rate, the increasing mortality rate of the population due to disease, the inability of Spanish government to adequately protect and supply the Missions with needed goods.
By 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, which made Alta California a territory of Mexico. Under new governmental direction, the Mission faced continued decline. By 1834, the Mexican government decided to end 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 divided and sold to 20 prominent California families. By 1845, Governor Pio Pico even sold the Mission itself. The Mission was sold at auction to John Forster, Governor Pio Pico’s brother-in-law for $710, when it was valued to be worth more than $54,000. For the next 20 years the Mission was a private ranch property of the Forster family.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, like California, 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. With the Gold Rush beginning, and millions of Americans moving to California, Mission San Juan Capistrano would see another great change.
Only a few years after acquiring the territory of California, the United States declared it a state 1850. Many California dioceses and parishioners petitioned the government to have mission buildings and lands returned to the church. People were saddened at the state of the missions. Some mission buildings had been turned into stores, bars, inns, or even stables. Most were falling apart and not maintained.
President Abraham Lincoln responded to the petitioners by giving back the missions to the Catholic Church. 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. Throughout the 1910s-1940s a great amount of preservation work ensued.
The Mission continues efforts in preservation, with the help of donations each year. Although the Mission is owned by the Catholic Church, it is run by a non-profit organization. This means, Mission San Juan Capistrano does not receive any funding from the Catholic Church, State, or Federal Government for operation or preservation. It depends entirely on the generous contributions of visitors and benefactors. With the help of the public, the Mission can continue to be a an inspirational historic, cultural, and religious site.