Mission cemetery circa 1928

Legends & Folklore

Mission San Juan Capistrano is a place of legend and folklore, and recently the birthplace of Orange County granted the SyFy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” crew limited access to investigate public claims of paranormal activity.

The San Juan Capistrano community’s pleas for an investigation were heard, and the show was aired on the SyFy Channel.

The Ghost Hunters crew focused on claims of sightings of “Magdalena,” a young woman who perished while in the Great Stone Church during the 1812 earthquake.

Another claim investigated by the crew involved sightings of a “faceless monk” roaming the halls of the Mission.

Mission San Juan Capistrano began as a missionary’s dream over 200 years ago, and today continues to be a unique part of Orange County’s history. The story of the San Juan Capistrano swallows who return every year on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, as told by Father St. John O’Sullivan, is the community’s best known legend.

There are several stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Some have basis in fact and some are made up. These stories have been told time and time again. Listed below are notable legends and folklore regarding historic Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The Legend of Magdalena
In 1915, Joseph Smeaton Chase published one of the oldest ghost stories of the San Juan Capistrano community. He collected this story around the turn of the century and published it as one of many tales told in and around the Southern California Missions.

The story goes…
Magdalena was about 15 or 16 years old, young and beautiful. She fell in love with a young man named Teofilo. He was a promising artist who painted the wall frescos inside the newly built Great Stone Church. Magdalena’s father was a soldier, and he forbid her to see Teofilo because he was not of the same social standing.

Although forbidden to see each other, Magdalena managed to slip away and meet Teofilo secretly. One day they were caught by her father. Magdalena was severely punished. Her father required her to confess to the priest. As part of her punishment, she was to walk in front of the congregation holding a penitent’s candle. The day she was to do this was December 8th, 1812*. At the early morning mass, she went inside the Great Stone Church and lit her candle. As she carried the candle up the aisle toward the priest to say her penance, the earth began to shake. A large earthquake struck. It is estimated that it was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The bell tower swayed and fell on top of the church. People screamed trying to make it toward the door, but unfortunately, the door was jammed. Forty people were buried alive under the rubble. It took months for the rubble to be cleared and the bodies to be buried. Among the dead was a young girl, Magdalena, with a candle still in her hand.

It is said that on a night of a half-moon ,one can see her face in the remaining window of the Great Stone Church, still doing penance for her forbidden love.

*Please note December 8, 2012 was the 200 year anniversary of the earthquake. The lunar calendar shows it was a night of a half-moon. 

The Story of Matilda and How She Walked in the Spirit
In 1930, Capistrano Nights: Tales of a California Mission Town was published. It was written by Charles Francis Saunders and Father St. John O’Sullivan (pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano). The story of Matilda is told by Father O’Sullivan himself. Among the stories told is that of a young woman named Matilda and how her spirit was seen before she died and the bells mysteriously ringing on their own after her death.

The story goes…
There was a young woman named Matilda who lived in an adobe house just across the El Camino Real not far from Serra Chapel. She helped the padre in taking care of altar cloths, cleaning the church and altar, etc. One day, while Mass was being said, the priest noticed Matlida looking in through a window in the church. Later she was scolded for not coming in and joining the service. She denied ever being at the church. She insisted she was home the entire time. Not long thereafter, the priest again saw her at the window, as did several other women that were in the church. Even her brother-in-law saw her outside in the corridor walking away. Yet, when he called to her, she seemed to disappear. Confused, he went to her house to wait for her return and to ask her why she had hurried away. She, however, was already home and claimed she had not left her house at all that day.

A few days later Matilda died. It was whispered that the person seen looking in the window and lurking the corridors of Serra Chapel had not been Matilda but her spirit, which was walking around while she lived–a sure sign of her impending death. On the day of her death, the bells of the Mission were rung by unseen hands. The bell ropes neatly coiled and still, the tolling correctly announcing that a woman had died.

Other stories often told:

There is a story of a faceless monk who walks the halls of the North Wing Corridor. It is said he is usually seen hurrying into the darkness with his back always toward you.

There is a story of a ghost of a Soldier; many claim to have heard the sound of his heavy boots pacing back and forth along the building guarding the grounds.