Mission San Juan Capistrano, historic landmark and museum, is the Birthplace of Orange County. It was founded more than two hundred years ago as the 7th of 21 missions statewide and features a chapel still standing where Saint Serra once celebrated Mass. Today, it is a monument to California’s multi-cultural history, embracing its Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European heritage. Originally built as a self sufficient community by Spanish Padres and Native Americans, the Mission was a center for agriculture, industry, education and religion.Famous for the Annual Return of the Swallows, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the “Jewel of the California Missions” and welcomes over 300,000 visitors each year.
About Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano has been home to many people over its 240 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.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was permanently founded by Junipero Serra on November 1, 1776, as the seventh of 21 missions to be established in California by the Spanish. It had originally been started at the end of the October 1775, but it had to be abandoned after only a week. A Kumeyaay war party destroyed Mission San Diego at the beginning of November, and the soldiers were ordered back to San Diego to reinforce the garrison there. The priests had to go to San Diego with the Soldiers.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was established to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain and to spread Christianity to the native peoples of California. Missions and presidios (forts) were projected to be the major institutions for the spread of Spanish rule. Missions were to be agents of assimilation, convincing the native people to become Catholics and teaching them the fundamentals of Spanish agricultural and village life. The object was to transform them into self-sustaining Spanish subjects and members of the colonial order. Presidios were to protect the missions from hostile natives and also to protect the territory from potential incursion by Russia or other European powers.
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s establishment in 1776 meant many changes and challenges for the indigenous Acjachemen (Ah-HAWSH-eh-men). The Spanish people brought with them new types of technology, clothing, food, animals, and ideas. The missionaries encouraged the Acjachemen to learn about the Catholic faith and be baptized to join the Mission. However, officially joining the Mission meant the Acjachemen had to change almost everything about their life. They were required to change their culture, language, religion, work, clothing, food, and even their daily schedule.
The decision to join the missions was not always easy. California mission historian, Steven Hackel, explains with the Spanish arrival “came horses, mules, oxen and sheep, and they multiplied and thrived. They also devastated indigenous plants and animals, shaping much of California’s now iconic landscape of hillsides barren of all but oaks and dry grasses. The state’s indigenous people were forced to find new food sources, and many of them had little choice but to leave their villages for missions.”
Furthermore, living at the Mission also meant exposure to germs. With their arrival, the Spanish unintentionally exposed the Native Americans to illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, measles, and syphilis. Without modern medical knowledge, there was little success in preventing the spread of disease. Close quarters, poor sanitation, and the lack of natural immunity to common European diseases proved fatal for the indigenous population.
It is estimated that about 65,000 Native Americans lived in coastal zone of California (mission chain zone) in 1770 and by 1830 only 17,000 remained living, a decline of 74%.
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 native 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.
In 1845, Governor Pio Pico sold the Mission itself. The Mission was sold at auction to John Forster, Governor Pico’s brother-in-law. For the next 20 years, the Mission was a private ranch property of the Forster family.
California became a state in 1850. California’s Catholic bishop, Joseph Alemany, petitioned the U.S. government to have mission buildings and lands returned to the Catholic Church. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln returned the Mission to the Catholic Church.
Starting in the 1870s and throughout the early 1900s, artists, photographers, and visionaries took interest in the missions. Many community leaders joined the campaign for restoration. The Landmarks Club, led by Charles Lummis and resident padre Father St. John O’Sullivan were Mission San Juan Capistrano’s greatest proponents of preservation ushering in a new era for the landmark.
The miracle of the “Swallows” of Capistrano takes place each year at Mission San Juan Capistrano, on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. Swallows migrate 6,000 miles from Goya, Argentina to San Juan Capistrano in large groups. The town of San Juan Capistrano welcomes visitors from all parts of the world to witness the return of the swallows, a tradition that has been celebrated since the early 1930s.
The Legend of the Cliff Swallows of Capistrano
In his book, Capistrano Nights, Father St. John O’Sullivan, Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano (1910-1933) tells the story of how the swallows came to call the Mission home.
One day, while walking through town, Father O’Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand, knocking down the conically shaped mud swallow nests that were under the eaves of his shop. The birds were darting back and forth through the air squealingover the destruction of their homes.
“What in the world are you doing?” O’Sullivan asked.
“Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded.
“But where can they go?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”
Father O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”
The very next morning, Father O’Sullivan discovered the swallows busy building their nests outsideFather Junípero Serra’s Church.
Join us for St. Joseph’s Day and Return of the Swallows Celebration annually on March 19th!
Saint Junípero Serra (1713 – 1784)
Saint Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary born and raised in Mallorca, Spain, was appointed the Father President of the Alta California Mission’s in 1769. He had over 15 years of administrative and missionary experience in various parts of Mexico, including the Sierra Gorda.
Although Saint Serra was in his fifties and suffered from a chronic ulcerated condition in his leg when he was assigned to oversee the missions, he had uncompromising optimism in his efforts to convert Native Americans and colonize California. His personal motto was “Always Forward, Never Back.” Despite hardships, lack of supplies, squabbles with the military leaders, Saint Serra established 9 missions, and converted about 5,000 Native Americans before his death in 1784. He died and was buried at his headquarters Mission Carmel, just outside of Monterey.
Today we can see Saint Serra’s legacy by exploring Mission San Juan Capistrano’s grounds. Serra Chapel, named in his honor, is the last remaining mission church in which Saint Serra celebrated Mass. When he last visited in 1783, he walked and may have stayed in the South Wing Building, or the Padres’ Living Quarters. The Mission Treasure’s Exhibit also features the “Serra Vestment” which dates back to the 1770s, and was likely used by Saint Serra when he was here. Lastly, the Serra Statue located near the Bell Wall, just turned 100 years old; it was commissioned by Father John O’Sullivan in 1914 to honor Saint Serra who founded Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776.
Saint Junípero Serra is considered one of the most important Spanish missionaries in the Americas. His historical significance is even represented in U.S. Capital Building’s Statuary Hall. Serra was chosen as one of two historically significant persons to represent the state of California.
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s oldest tradition is the ringing of the historic bells. This tradition is performed by a chosen few. The official bell ringer positions have only been occupied by a handful of men, since the late 1800s. The three men who carry out this important ritual today are Michael Gastelum, Nathan Banda and Rafael Gutierrez. Together they bring history to life by ringing the bells on designated feast days, holidays and community celebrations.
Four bells were originally cast for Mission San Juan Capistrano and each is named after a Saint (from largest to smallest these names are San Vincente, San Juan, San Antonio, and San Rafael). With the earthquake of 1812 and the collapse of the bell tower, they were relocated to a bell wall, or Campanario. However, the two largest bells, having sustained major damage in the towers collapse, would never ring the same way again.
Today, the original two largest bells (San Vicente and San Juan) hang in the footprint of the bell tower of the ruins of the Great Stone Church were they once hung. On the Bell Wall are two replica large bells, and the original two small bells (San Antonio and San Rafael) which are still rung today.
And also 7 times each day at 9:00 a.m. to honor the legacy of its founder St. Junípero Serra, who founded Mission San Juan Capistrano as the 7th of his 9 California missions. For more information, please visit our calendar.
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