The late 1700’s were a turning point in world history. Thirteen British colonies decided they had enough of the monarchy ruling over them and started a revolution that would later create one of the greatest countries in the world. While people such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and others were in Philadelphia, signing the Declaration of Independence, a Franciscan missionary, Padre Junipero Serra was hard at work, founding a network of missions throughout California, along what was called El Camino Real. In 1776, with the world’s attention focused on a little room along America’s east coast, construction began on Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, became the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in 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 missionaries 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.
Padre Serra was crucial in bringing together European and indigenous Indian cultures which formed the beginning of California’s rich multi-cultural heritage. That bi-cultural partnership not only built a large adobe mission, but constructed a stone church which was 180 feet long, five stories high at the sanctuary and was topped with seven stone domes and a bell tower. It was the largest stone structure west of the Mississippi. The stone church started as a vision in 1797 and would be completed almost 10 years later. Spanish padres and the proud Juaneno Mission Indians wanted to build the most magnificent structure among all the missions. They wanted an edifice so majestic and so beautiful that even God would be impressed. History tells us they succeeded. The Great Stone Church, as it came to be called, was a man-made, heaven inspired masterpiece.
During the first 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano thrived. Not only did they complete an architectural gem with the completion of the Great Stone Church, by 1806, the mission boasted a population of over 1000, and over 10,000 head of livestock. Everything came crashing down in December 1812, when the Great Stone Church collapsed in a tremendous earthquake, killing 40 Juaneno Indians attending Mass. The church collapse combined with plague and disease caused the decline of the mission, until the Mexican government put an end to the mission system in 1934, taking it away from the Catholic Church. Over the next few decades, Mission San Juan Capistrano, like California, saw many changes.
After California became a state in 1850, Mission San Juan Capistrano was in major disrepair. President Abraham Lincoln responded to petitioners to preserve the mission 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. Today, conservation efforts are still under way. Although the Mission is owned by the Catholic Church, it is run by a non-profit organization. Through contributions and volunteers, Mission San Juan Capistrano has been able to stay open for visitors, as well as provide upkeep for current buildings and repair others, such as the Spanish soldiers barracks. The future of Mission San Juan Capistrano depends on visitors like us that enjoy the beauty of its past, and pride ourselves on its heritage and place in our culture.
Here are a few tips on visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano:
- Because the mission is ran by a non profit organization, it receives no federal funding or funding from the Catholic Church. In order to keep the preservation efforts going, the Mission charges a small fee to enter. It also includes a free audio tour. You can book your tickets and find out more about mission by clicking here.
- The mission is located in the City of San Juan Capistrano, which is the oldest community in Orange County, CA. There are many more things to see and do in the City Center, as well as a nice trip through the mountains (See The Road Less Traveled: Ortega Highway)
- Buildings around the mission have been restored over the years. Living history days portray life in the mission period. There are reconstructions of the tallow ovens where soap and candles were made, tanning vats for hides, and metal-working furnaces. Many concerts, festivals, and exhibits are held at the mission throughout the year. The extensive grounds, pools, and gardens make the ruins of the Great Stone Church look beautiful.
- The best-known feature of San Juan Capistrano is the return of the Cliff Swallows to build their nests of mud and saliva against the arches of the ruins. Each year, for as long as people can remember, the swallows have returned around March 19, which is remembered as St. Joseph’s Day. A week-long fiesta greets the swallows, who stay at San Juan Capistrano until about October 23. The swallows return is also celebrated in Leon Rene’s famous song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.”
Have you been to Mission San Juan Capistrano or any of the 21 other missions along El Camino Real? If so, let me know which was your favorite! if you haven’t, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter or like us on Facebook to read more about them as we visit them!