The Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano
Where the Swallows return to Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano, CA

December 17th, 2002

While hanging out in the Huntington Beach area we decided to run down and see one of those wonderful old missions that were built several centuries ago.  Looking back at early post-Columbian history of the west coast we learned that Spain made the first European in-roads along the California coast in the 1700s.  While taking advantage of the great harbors around Los Angeles and San Francisco they paid little attention to the northern part of the coast with its great forests and abundant animals.  These were years of turmoil in Europe and money was the main reason for coastal exploration.  Gold was the calling card.  Little development occurred until Spain realized that Russia, which had found a way across the Baring Straights was harvesting fur animals, extensively in the Alaska territory.  As time passed Russia, whose only interest in the area was the fur trade, began to thin out the wild life to a point that new territories were needed.  Slowly the furriers began the long migration south through what is now Canada and finally into northern California.  Spain, seeing this encroachment on what it believed was its colonial lands, realized its military was far too small and far too distant to challenge much of what the Russians were doing.  The Spanish response was to authorize a series of missions to be built along the California coast.  The job of creating the 21 California missions fell to the Franciscan Friars.  San Juan Capistrano was one of these missions. The main purpose as the Friars saw it was to spread the word of God throughout the Indian populations.  To this endeavor, the missions were built with a large enclosure to facilitate many residents. They were the training center as well as the religious center.  The first school in the area was inside the mission.  The high walls of clay that surrounded the mission were hollow.  Inside these walls were rooms used for storage and for living space for the local Indians The center of activity for the entire mission was the chapel.  Serra Chapel was built between 1776 and 1778 and was beautifully constructed. It is the only existing chapel where  Father Serra conducted services.  Its arched roof of seven domes had sheltered worshipers for less than a decade when a tragic earthquake leveled the beautiful structure, leaving only a part of one dome and the sanctuary wall.  Today, a nearby replica outside Mission walls, serves as the parish church. There are beautiful bells in the campanario that were cast between 1796 and 1804.  They originally hung in the bell tower of the Great Stone Church but came crashing down in the earthquake.  The two large bells were severely damaged in their fall from the tower.  The largest was split open.  The bell called San Juan was cracked and split open at the rim line.  The result was a clunking rather than a ringing which further damaging the bells.  They have hung in the campanario since 1813. The bells tolled out the daily lives of the people of San Juan Capistrano.  They told them when to get up in the morning, called them to religious services, announced midday break, tolled evening vespers and communicated births, death and other events.  In later years they were used to announce the arrival of the swallows in their springtime migration to Capistrano. One of the most impressive parts of the mission was the wonderfully ornate alter in the rebuilt chapel.  The chapel itself is a long narrow inner structure with a single narrow isle supplying access to benches on either side.  Although narrow, it is quite long.  This altar is over 300 years old and is from Barcelona Spain.  It was a gift to the diocese of Los Angeles in 1906.  The altar came in 396 pieces  It was installed in the Serra Chapel by Fr. O'Sullivan in 1922.  The retablo is carved Spanish cherry wood, covered with gesso and gold leaf. The gold leaf must be renewed every couple of centuries.   The mission is 224 years old so this is indeed a timely event.  All around the mission grounds there are interesting things to explore.  There are Native American displays , as well as a soldier's barracks, a mission cemetery and a wonderful garden and central courtyard.
Laura: While we don't often get too personal in our web page I just wanted to mention that at the time we visited San Juan we were going through a personal crisis with Bob having been diagnosed with a Squamous Cancer on the side of his head. We were waiting for his surgery when we made this trip with our good friends (and editor) Lynn and Susie Davis. Needless to say I had a great deal of trepidation about the outcome of the cancer surgery. When we went into the chapel I saw a brochure on a "little known" Saint by the name of St. Peregrine. It seemed that he was the patron Saint of cancer patients. I took this as more than a coincidence and lit a candle to St. Peregrine. Well, thousands of miles and many months, later as I write this,  Bob is still cancer  free. Was it the prayer or simply the expertise of his surgeon? I'll leave that up to you to decide, but I'm glad I still have him around to travel life's highways with. 

***THE END***