Mission San Juan Capistrano holds in its historic collection several thousand objects. These objects include photos, artifacts, documents, paintings, baskets and more. Many of these works represent the Mission’s history, religious influence and Native American culture. These sections highlight just some of the museum’s collection. To give a gift to the museum collection conservation fund, please contact Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams at (949) 234-1311 or donate online.
Mission History Collection
The Mission San Juan Capistrano historic museum collection includes many photos and artifacts pertaining to the Mission’s history. Some of the items range in date from when Father Serra first founded Mission San Juan Capistrano on November 1, 1776 to the present day. Learn more about the history of Mission San Juan Capistrano. This is only a partial listing of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s historic collection.
During the 19th century, in exchange for hides and tallow, merchants supplied Californio ranchers with manufactured goods and luxury items like this saddle which could cost as much as 150 hides. Don Juan Forster likely purchased the saddle in the 1850s, and the saddle stayed in the Forster family’s possession until the 1970s when Jerome Forster (1933-2012) placed it on a loan to a Smithsonian Institute exhibit about western saddles in North America, and thereafter graciously placed it with Mission San Juan Capistrano for its collection.
This beautiful Californio-style saddle demonstrated Don Juan Forster’s wealth. Like other Californios, he used his large landholdings to raise cattle and became wealthy by trading hides and tallow with English and American merchant ships. In 1845, Forster purchased Mission San Juan Capistrano at auction from his brother-in-law, then Governor Pio Pico for a mere $710. For 20 years, Forster and his family called the Mission home (1845 to 1865) until is was determined that control of the Mission should be returned to the Catholic Church. Visit the Mission Treasures exhibit to view the Forster Saddle, open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
In 1845, Pio Pico, Mexico’s last California governor, attempted to generate revenue by ordering all the remaining mission buildings and lands to be rented or sold. Pico sold the available Mission San Juan Capistrano lands, valued at $55,000, in 1846 to his brother-in-law John “Don Juan” Forster, along with another Englishman, James McKinley, for $710. John Forster and his wife Isidora made the Mission their home for over 20 years.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln issued proclamations restoring California Mission lands to the Roman Catholic Church, however, this 1875 map shows the three tracts of land at Mission San Juan Capistrano confirmed to the holdings of Juan Forster and James McKinley. It has the seal and signature of the U.S. Surveyor General Office in the lower left corner.
A 1855 Mexican Reales coin. Found at the Mission during the construction of the new entrance in 2012. Because of the historical importance of the site, the Mission always employs an Archaeologist and a Monitor from the local Acjachemen Nation to monitor even routine maintenance projects.
A Fragment of Wedgewood Porcelain
This is one of many pieces of fine porcelain that has been found at the Mission. This particular piece was part of a dish made by Wedgewood & Co, c. 1860. It is possible that this could have been dishware owned by the Forster family who called the Mission home from 1845 to 1865.
Mission Archive Collection
This is only a partial listing of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s historic collection.
Photo of Central Courtyard Circa 1908
The Mission’s historic photograph collection is comprised of thousands of photographs from as early as the late 1800s that document the history of the Mission. This one, from the collection shows the south east corner of the Central Courtyard, c. 1908.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed this patent of title restoring Mission San Juan Capistrano’s ownership to the Catholic Church and removing it from the private ownership of the Forster family. The document was signed on March 18, 1865, just three weeks before Lincoln was assassinated
In 1776, Saint Junípero Serra created this register—one of several volumes—to record the sacramental celebrations of baptism, marriage, and funerals at this Mission. Due to their age and fragile condition, the original registers are rarely exhibited.
The Mission holds a collection of early books, some of which travelled to San Juan Capistrano with the Priests and Soldiers who founded this Mission. This book titled “Theologie Thomisticae”, written by Jean Bapstiste Gonet and printed in 1667.
Leon Rene Memorabilia and Artifacts
The Museum collection includes memorabilia and artifacts related to the American Composer Leon René (1902-1982). Much of this collection was generously donated to the Mission by Mr. René’s family. Famous for writing hit songs such as “Rockin’ Robin”, Mr. René helped breathe new life and interest to Mission San Juan Capistrano when his song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” became a hit in 1940. This photograph of Leon René was taken by photographer Thomas Y. Yee in 1946.
Front Page of the Los Angeles Evening Herald Express
This dramatic front page of the Los Angeles Evening Herald Express dated March 19, 1942, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, reports news from the events of World War II. Included on the front page, directly below the headline about the battle for Australia is the news that the Swallows have returned to Capistrano!
Photo of Mass in the Great Stone Church
Photography is an important part of the the Great Stone Church around the year 1895. During this time the Mission had no resident priest. So, Administrator of Mission San Luis Rey, Father Joseph Jeremiah O’Keefe celebrated Mass at San Juan Capistrano twice a month.
Photo of Central Courtyard Circa 1870s
Photography is an important part of the Mission’s museum archive. These photos help document the history, condition and preservation of the Mission. This photograph shows the Mission’s central courtyard, Serra Chapel, Sala and South Wing sometime around the year 1870.
Vintage Postcard Circa 1900s
As the Mission began its identity as a tourist attraction in the early 20th century, postcards became a regular fixture as an item to be sold to visitors to generate money to preserve the buildings. These postcards are a significant addition to the archive collection because as a photography the document the history, condition and preservation of the buildings. This postcard is not dated but was likely taken in the early 1900’s.
Vintage Postcard Circa 1900s
This vintage postcard pictures Reverend Arthur J. Hutchinson, pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano 1933-1951. He stands at the entrance to the Mission c. mid-late 1930’s.
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s museum collection includes paintings ranging in date from the 18th to the 21st century. The paintings help to tell the story of the history and culture here. This is only a partial listing of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s painting collection.
Station of the Cross XII
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Station of the Cross XII Conservation Project included finding a 214 year old painting hidden in Serra This reproduction is a copy of the original painting from the Mission’s founding era. The original painting hung in Serra Chapel until 1973, when Monsignor Vincent Lloyd Russell (1904–1976), who was pastor of the Mission from 1951 to 1976, noticed that it had suffered damage and deterioration. Lacking the funds to repair the painting, Monsignor Russell asked parishioner William Maldonado to create a replica. Once completed, Mr. Maldonado’s painting was nailed to the original, hiding and protecting it. The replica hung in Serra Chapel until May 2013, when Mission staff and conservators carefully removed it from the original.
Mary Pickford’s Wedding
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Station of the Cross XII Conservation Project included finding a 214 year old painting hidden in Serra Chapel for more than 40 years. When conservators lifted the painting from the wall, they found a Los Angeles newspaper from Though the artist, Charles Percy Austin, was not present at this ceremony it is believed that this work was created from details told to him by Father O’Sullivan who officiated. Mary Pickford first visited the Mission in 1910 while filming the Biograph Company film, “The Two Brothers” directed by D.W. Griffith. Around that same time she met fellow Biograph actor Owen Moore whom she married a short time later in 1911. They renewed their wedding vows at the Mission, in the Serra Chapel on April 24, 1915. The record can be seen in the Marriage Register of the Mission as entered by Father O’Sullivan.
Portrait of Father O’Sullivan
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Station of the This is a portrait of the Mission’s Great Restorer, Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan, who was Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano 1914-1933, shown seated in front of the newly re- built North Wing in 1924. The artist was Joseph Kleitsch who immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1901 and went on to become a well-known California plein air artist.
Station of the Cross XIII
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Station of the This is a portrait of the Mission’s Great Restorer, Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan, who was Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano 1914-1933, shown seated in front of the newly re- built North Wing in 1924. The artist was The term “Stations of the Cross” refers to a standardized series of scenes—depicted artistically through carving, painting, or another medium—that represents the path that Jesus took on the day of his crucifixion. Often shown as a sequence of fourteen paintings or sculptures, Stations of the Cross are commonly found in Catholic churches. The faithful are intended to stop at each station and make a spiritual pilgrimage through prayer. The painting shown here is Station of the Cross XIII from the set that is on permanent display in the Serra Chapel. The paintings are not signed by an artist but are believed to date to the late 1700s to early 1800s.
This is only a partial listing of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Liturgical collection.
These candlesticks were reportedly salvaged from the ruins of the Great Stone Church after the devastating earthquake of 1812 in which 40 people perished. Housed within the Serra Chapel until the late 1800s, these candlesticks adorned the altar during the celebration of Mass and the sacred Eucharist. The light from these candles facilitated the administration of sacraments and symbolized the “light” of Christ, invoking the words, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). According to Catholic tradition, candles must be placed atop a pair of candlesticks to light the altar during any religious ceremony.
Chalice Circa 1930s
A chalice is a vessel for the consumption of sacred wine at communion, a ceremony in which parishioners break bread and drink wine in remembrance of Christ. Priests used this chalice during Mass from the 1930s to the 1950s at the Mission, most likely in the Serra Chapel where Father Junipero Serra originally administered the Eucharist. This vessel served to connect the parishioner with Christ as the priest consecrated the wine and delivered the formal ceremony. By sharing the chalice among the parishioners, the priest not only connects the worshipper with God but also symbolically unites the congregation as the body of Christ. The chalice continues to serve as a representation of the Catholic faith and the parish community’s 230+ years of worship at this historic site.
Nicknamed the “Serra Chasuble” and possibly worn by Father Serra himself, this vestment invokes a sense of reverence towards Mass and conveys the “weight” of the ceremony in its religious significance. According to Reverend Arthur A. Holquin, the Pastor/Rector Emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano, the word “chasuble” is derived from the “Latin word ‘casula,’ which means ‘little house,’ since its older form completely enveloped the body.”
The chasuble, the outermost liturgical garment that covers the priest’s torso, represents God’s love and protection, investing the priest with divine significance. Worn around the neck is the stole, a direct symbol of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice, signifying the priest’s authority and ability to pardon sins. Also included is the maniple, an embroidered silk band worn on the left wrist which served to wipe away the priest’s perspiration and tears, similar to a handkerchief. Though not commonly used today, this highly decorative garment matches the chasuble and often displays a high degree of ornamentation. Finally, the orphrey band, worn over the chasuble, features an image of a cross, symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection; it usually depicts a Biblical scene in highly ornate embroidery, and its weight symbolically reminds the priest of his obligation to God.
This particular vestment illustrates a passage from the Book of Revelations (Rev 5:1): a “Lamb of God” rests on seven gold seals, decorated with gold and silver embellishments to enrich the garment. Roman in style, its characteristics can be traced to the period of the Blessed Junipero Serra, though its original ownership remains uncertain.
Ornate in form but simple in function, this 18th century tabernacle features intricate carvings and vibrant paint to distinguish it from the other liturgical objects in the church. It essentially houses the consecrated bread and wine used in the Eucharist during the celebration of Mass. Gilded, spiral columns frame the miniature wooden door which conceals the sacred contents. The purpose of this elaborate vessel was to inspire reverence in the viewer and to bestow a sense of ceremony for this sacred rite.
Historians believe this baptismal font—which held holy water—was originally used in the Great Stone Church, 1806-1812, and was later used in the Serra Chapel. Measuring thirty-nine inches tall and forty-one inches in diameter, the font was conserved in 2005 and put on permanent display in Serra Chapel.
A confessional is a small, usually enclosed space where the faithful perform the sacrament of penance, or confession of sins. This historic confessional box is one of an original pair that can be seen in photographs and drawings of the Mission dating back to the 1800s. For many years, visitors to the Mission were permitted to touch, climb on, and sit in the confessionals. Due to wear and tear, they have been relocated into the archives to be preserved.
Historians believe this set of processional silver was commissioned and brought to the Mission from New Spain during our founding period. For over two centuries, parishioners and priests used the set during Mass. To protect its fragile and deteriorating condition, this set was retired from active service in 2011 and a new set was created for active use. These historic processional items remain on public display in the West Wing Museum.
Native American Collection
This is only a partial listing of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Native American collection.
Apache Basket Circa Early 1900s
Olla shaped baskets such as this one were originally intended to store grain but later were made more for the tourist market as fine Apache baskets are very valuable. This Apache basket was made in the early 20th century.
First Phase Chief’s Blanket Circa 1800s
The skill of Navajo weavers made blankets such as this one highly valuable a sought after. Nicknamed “chief” blankets because of their value, they were meant to serve both as a blanket and to be worn. Early examples of chief’s blankets, called “first phase” were woven with simple striped patterns but later second and third phase blankets had more elaborate patterns and colors. This blanket dates from the mid 1800’s.
Seed Beater Circa Early 1900s
Many Native groups throughout North America used this type of basket to harvest seeds from plants. This example was made in the central California area in the early 20th century.
The Acjachemen people who lived in this area prior to the arrival of the Spanish provided the labor to build Mission San Juan Capistrano and were its earliest residents. The museum collection is fortunate to have a number of stone tools as a reminder of these founders. This mortar dates to before the Mission period.
Stone manos and metates like the ones pictured here were used in the Capistrano Valley since before the founding of the Mission. They were essential tools used in food preparation by the original residents of the area, the Acjachemen people.
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