The fragrance of thousands of blooms fills the air, floating on a cool ocean breeze. The ruins of a magnificent cathedral give proud testimony to a transforming faith. Is this Greece? Turkey? Egypt? No. This is the coast of Southern California, and the ruins are the Great Stone Church of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
This journey was more like a family fun day. We boarded the Amtrak Coaster in San Diego, found some seats with a table, and ate our lunch. In Oceanside, we switched to the Pacific Surfliner, for the short hop to San Juan Capistrano. The mission is a pleasant stroll from the station, past upscale eateries, and through enticing boutiques and galleries. This location was likely as alluring in 1775 when the Jewel of the Missions was established, as it is today. The Mission was immediately successful.
The Great Stone Church, begun in 1797, boasted 8 domes and an arched roof. Less than ten years after its completion, the devastating 1812 earthquake struck, during Mass, killing 40 people. One dome and the sanctuary wall still stand, and on occasion a reclusive artist can be found in its shadow, capturing the haunting and beautiful architecture on canvas.
The fabulous Mission bells, which welcome the swallows back to their mud nests in the old stone church every spring, have their own story. Eight days after Fr. Fermin Lasuen’s party arrived in 1775 to establish the mission here, Indians attacked the mission at San Diego, killing the padre there. The bells were quickly buried and the party fled to the presidio. The following year, when Fr. Serra arrived, the bells were found, undisturbed. They were hung from trees until the 120-foot bell tower in the Great Stone Church was completed and they hung there until they were damaged in the 1812 earthquake. Recast in the year 2000, they once again celebrate the St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) return of their old friends, the swallows.
Adding insult to injury, only six years after the earthquake, the pirate Hippolyte Bouchard attacked the Mission. After sacking the town for food and provisions, the mission’s winery was discovered, and revelry ensued until the wine store was depleted. The pirates moved on. A large brick wine vat is pictured below, center. The Pirate Festival is one of many historical reenactments held yearly at the Mission.
San Juan Capistrano is probably one of the best and longest restored of the missions. While excavations as early as the 1930’s turned up tallow vats used for making soap and candles, dyeing vats for dyeing wool and furnaces for forging metal tools and hardware were also discovered. In addition, the restored industrial center is a tribute to the engineering skills and the building efficiency of the Franciscan missionaries.
The mission had to grow all its own food, and the active garden displays are interesting. Also of note, young Indian boys operated the olive mill stone and the grist mill; the stones pressed oil from mission olives and ground grain for flour.
Father Serra’s Chapel is the original mission church. It withstood the 1812 earthquake and was once again used as the mission church after the Great Stone Church fell. The chapel got its name because it is the only surviving church where the mission presidente said Mass. Ongoing conservation efforts in 2008 will be focusing on the 400-year-old hand carved retablo with gold leaf overlay, from Barcelona, Spain.
The mission still ministers to the spiritual needs of thousands of Southern Californians and tourists. A replica Basilica stands nearby and functions as the parish church. But something is always happening at the Mission itself. The second Saturday each month is Living History Day, with re-enactments, demonstrations, and costumes from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Concerts include the Capistrano Valley Symphony Pops, Jazz, Swing and Classic Rock Bands.
For more information and to plan your pilgrimage:
Mission San Juan Capistrano
26801 Ortega Highway
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
949-234-1300, ext. 318
Mission Guide, San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, Pierce Brothers Mission Series