San Juan Capistrano Mission, California, USA about 1892

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO MISSION, CALIFORNIA — Ever since the command was given, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature,” there have never been wanting faithful and heroic followers of Christ who have left home, kindred, luxuries and comforts, and have risked their lives unhesitatingly for the salvation of their fellow-men. The history of Catholic Missions among the Indians of California is a very interesting one. If properly described, it would prove as exciting as a romance. The theme has been occasionally touched upon in fiction, and never more gracefully and effectively than the novel called “Ramona,” by “H. H.” One of these Californian Mission Stations is that of San Juan, outlined in this illustration. It was founded in 1776 in a lovely spot, commanding a charming vista of the blue sea dotted here and there with snowy sails. It was once very prosperous and influential. Some of the Fathers cultivated the vine here with great success. The Indian converts, too, connected with this mission, had an excellent reputation for sincerity and good conduct. At the death of its founder it numbered 470 Christians, and afterwards the number increased so rapidly that in three months there were more natives baptized than during the three previous years. But now San Juan is in a dilapidated condition, and like so many other missions in the United States, its glory has departed with the departure of the Indians themselves. There still remain here, however, the ruins of an immense and handsome church, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, when many Indians were buried in its fall. (from John L. Stoddard, Glimpses of the world; a portfolio of photographs of the marvelous works of God and man – 1892)


The mission was founded in 1776, by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order. Named for Giovanni da Capistrano, a 15th-century theologian and “warrior priest” who resided in the Abruzzo region of Italy, San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782. Known alternately as “Serra’s Chapel” and “Father Serra’s Church,” it is the only extant structure where it has been documented that Junipero Serra celebrated Mass. One of the best known of the Alta California missions, and one of the few missions to have actually been founded twice — others being Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and Mission La Purísima Concepción. The site was originally consecrated on October 30, 1775, by Fermín Lasuén, but was quickly abandoned due to unrest among the indigenous population in San Diego.

The success of the settlement’s population is evident in its historical records. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, some 550 indigenous Acjachemen peoples lived in this area of their homeland. By 1790, the number of Indian reductions had grown to 700 Mission Indians, and just six years later nearly 1,000 “neophytes” (recent converts) lived in or around the Mission compound. 1,649 baptisms were conducted that year alone, out of the total 4,639 people converted between 1776 and 1847.

More than 69 former inhabitants (mostly Juaneño Indians) are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission’s cemetery (campo santo). The remains of (later Monsignor) St. John O’Sullivan, who recognized the property’s historic value and worked tirelessly to conserve and rebuild its structures, are buried at the entrance to the cemetery on the west side of the property, and a statue raised in his honor stands at the head of the crypt. The surviving chapel also serves as the final resting place of three priests who passed on while serving at the Mission: José Barona, Vicente Fustér, and Vicente Pascual Oliva are all entombed beneath the sanctuary floor.

The Criolla or “Mission grape,” was first planted at San Juan Capistrano in 1779, and in 1783 the first wine produced in Alta California was from the Mission’s winery. The Mission entered a long period of gradual decline after Mexican government secularization in 1833. After 1850 U.S. statehood, numerous efforts were made over the latter 19th century to restore the Mission to its former state, but none achieved much success until the arrival of O’Sullivan in 1910. Restoration efforts continue, and “Serra’s Chapel” is still used for religious services. Over 500,000 visitors, including 80,000 school children, come to the Mission each year. And while the ruins of “The Great Stone Church” (which was all but leveled by an 1812 earthquake) are a renowned architectural wonder, the Mission is perhaps best known for the annual “Return of the Swallows” which is traditionally observed every March 19 (Saint Joseph’s Day). Mission San Juan Capistrano has served as a favorite subject for many notable artists, and has been immortalized in literature and on film numerous times, perhaps more than any other mission.

In 1984, a modern church complex was constructed just north and west of the Mission compound and is now known as Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano. Today, the mission compound serves as a museum, with the Serra Chapel within the compound serving as a chapel for the mission parish. (from Wikipedia)


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