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.
With vistas of rocky beaches, farms, sandy beaches, and ranches, the drive to La Purisima Mission State Historic Park from Los Angeles reminds me of everything I like about Southern California. Entering the park itself is like stepping back in time.
Sheep and goats fill the corrals, turkeys gobble, and horses graze. We look around for an Indian shepherd, or a neophyte coming to gather the dried hides to be tanned, but apparently this is a non-living history day. The pastoral quiet is soothing.
Because it is a State Historic Park, La Purisima receives grant funding and has enjoyed massive restoration. Beginning in 1935, the California Conservation Corps performed painstaking research. CCC completely restored the buildings using the original construction methods, adobe bricks, clay tiles, handmade furniture.
Many living history events are held here throughout the year. This gives visitors the opportunity to see first-hand what life was like when the mission was at its peak. Docents and reenactors demonstrate mission crafts and skills. From grinding corn and making tortillas, to spinning wool and soap and candle making, everything is produced by the mission.
The tallow vats above were used to melt animal fat in preparation for making soap and candles. An abalone shell to hold holy water at the entrance to the church is representative of California’s coastal bounty. The church itself is sparse, much as it must have been when the 11th Mission was founded and the faithful stood and knelt or sat on the bare floor.
Extreme would be the word to describe the history of La Purisima. The mission was founded on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1797. In just one year, there were over 900 residents. Construction began on a new church but by 1804, the neophyte population had reached 1,520.
Scandal is nothing new to the Catholic Church. Accusations of mistreatment of the indians brought an investigation of the Franciscan padres and the military by the Spanish Governor. The accusations proved unfounded.
Extreme disaster followed extreme prosperity. In 1804, death and disease began to claim the lives of the Indian converts. The massive earthquake of 1812, followed by heavy rains, leveled the mission and its outbuildings.
Due to the devastation of the original mission, the padres relocated the new mission to the north. The new construction marked a departure from the traditional quadrangle mission plan. Laying the buildings out in a line worked better with the natural contours of the land. This allowed for a quick escape as well as preserving the farmland. As a result, extreme prosperity returned.
Because of the direction of Father Mariano Payeras, the mission continued to enjoy peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, after his death in 1823, the Chumash began to revolt against the military. Finally, the Mexican government took control of the property in 1834.
The government sold La Purisima at auction and as a result, the mission fell into ruin.
Fortunes began to improve in 1903 when then owner Union Oil Company realized that the mission grounds were an important part of history. Remarkably, the company donated much of the land to the State of California and restoration began.
Today, La Purisima Mission is building a new Visitor Center Complex. It will include a museum, exhibits and gift shop. The Mission offers many school programs and activities, as well as numerous living history events and an annual art show and sale.
The White Dove of the Desert, as Mission San Xavier del Bac has been very appropriately dubbed, has a prominent position on the desert plain in the southwest corner of Tucson, Arizona. Easy to spot from Interstate 19, it stands, a lonely survivor of struggle. A struggle still carried on to this day, not only with the saving of souls and formation of faithful Catholics but also with the obtaining of finances for the painstaking restoration of historic and priceless art. The story of Mission San Javier del Bac goes back before the story of the wild west. It starts even before the American Revolution.
Since 1692 the Mission has served the spiritual needs of the Tohono O’odham people and their ancestors. The stark beauty of this landscape struck Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino. Local natives convinced him of the need for a spiritual shepherd here. But the Mission would experience many fits and starts before there would be any continuity of leadership. Spain would banish the Jesuits, Franciscan friars would risk their lives against marauding bands of Apaches, and the fears of the tribe’s own medicine men would threaten the spread of the faith in what was then New Spain. The construction of the church building itself was a struggle. Builders laid the foundations in 1700 and 1702, but with a shortage of priests, and no resident priest at the mission until 1756, construction lay abandoned. Dismantling took place sometime after 1763. The Franciscans took over in 1768 and began building the present church.
Records remain sketchy as to who exactly the artists and builders were. Certainly, some of the locals received training from the craftsmen, and to this day some are involved in the ongoing restoration projects.
The church is built in the shape of a cross, with the main altar at the top, and a high dome at the center. Elaborate paintings grace the walls and ceilings. Pictures of angels, saints, God the Father, the Blessed Virgin Mary, faux tile, faux marble, and many other symbols decorate the church.
In addition to hand carved statues of angels, real clothing adorns representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary and saints. This is traditional in many places. While in the west transept is a reclining figure of Saint Francis Xavier, on which pilgrims pin “Milagros”, small metal images or symbols of the miracles they are praying for.
A mortuary chapel near the main church contains more statues and many votive lights. The Stations of the Cross, set into the walls, surround the old burial ground outside.
Just east of the church is a little hill topped by a large white cross. The pathway around the hill features a replica “Lourdes” grotto. The south end of the complex houses a plaza with native crafts and foods. The day we were there, a couple set up under the picnic area near the parking lot and sold yummy fry bread burritos and tacos.
Today Mission San Xavier del Bac is a thriving Catholic community. It is still administered by the Franciscans, with daily masses, weekly confession, mission school, religious education classes, and resident priests.