Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano was a Spanish mission in Southern California, located in present-day San Juan Capistrano. It was founded on All Saints Day November 1, 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 the padre 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 Father Fermí­n Lasuén, but was quickly abandoned due to unrest among the indigenous population in San Diego. The success of the settlement is evident in its historical records. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, some 550 natives were scattered throughout the local area; by 1790, the number of converted Christians had grown to 700, 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 souls converted between 1776 and 1847. More than 2,000 former inhabitants (mostly Juaneño Indians) are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission's cemetery ( campo santos). The remains of Father (later Monsignor) St. John O'Sullivan, who recognized the property's historic value and working 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 padres who passed on while serving at the Mission: Fathers 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; in 1783, the first wine produced in Alta California emerged from the Mission's winery. The Mission entered a long period of gradual decline after secularization in 1833. Numerous efforts were made over the years to restore the Mission to its former glory, but none met with great success until the arrival of Father O'Sullivan in 1910. Restoration efforts continue, and "Serra's Chapel" is still used for religious services. About half-a-million 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; the design is patterned after the old stone church, and is twenty percent larger.

The former Spanish settlement at Sajavit lies within that area occupied during the late Paleoindian period and continuing on into the present day by the Native American society commonly known as the Juaneño ; the name denotes those people who were ministered by the padres at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Many contemporary Juaneño, who identify themselves as descendents of the indigenous society living in the local San Juan and San Mateo Creek drainage areas, have adopted the indigenous term Acjachemen . Their language was related to the Luiseño language spoken by the nearby Luiseño tribe. The Acjachemen territory extended from Las Pulgas Creek in northern San Diego County up into the San Joaquin Hills along Orange County's central coast, and inland from the Pacific Ocean up into the Santa Ana Mountains. The bulk of the population occupied the outlets of two large creeks, San Juan Creek (and its major tributary, Trabuco Creek) and San Mateo Creek (combined with Arroyo San Onofre, which drained into the ocean at the same point). The highest concentration of villages was along the lower San Juan, where Mission San Juan Capistrano was ultimately situated and is preserved today. The Acjachemen resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged from between 35 to 300 inhabitants, consisting of a single lineage in the smaller villages, and of a dominant clan joined with other families in the larger settlements. Each clan had its own resource territory and was "politically" independent; ties to other villages were maintained through economic, religious, and social networks in the immediate region. The elite class (composed chiefly families, lineage heads, and other ceremonial specialists), a middle class (established and successful families, and people of disconnected or wandering families and captives of war comprised the three hierarchical social classes. Native leadership consisted of the Nota, or clan chief, who conducted community rites and regulated ceremonial life in conjunction with the council of elders ( Puuplem), which was made up of lineage heads and ceremonial specialists in their own right. This body decided upon matters of the community, which were then carried out by the Nota and his underlings. While the placement of residential huts in a village was not regulated, the ceremonial enclosure ( Vanquech) and the chief's home were most often centrally located. Relatively much is known about the native inhabitants in recent centuries, thanks in part to the efforts of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodrí­guez Cabrillo, who documented his observations of life in the coastal villages he encountered along the Southern California coast in October of 1542. Fray Gerónimo Boscana, a Franciscan scholar who was stationed at San Juan Capistrano for more than a decade beginning in 1812, compiled what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive study of prehistoric religious practices in the San Juan Capistrano valley. Religious knowledge was secret, and the prevalent religion, called Chinigchinich , placed village chiefs in the position of religious leaders, an arrangement that gave the chiefs broad power over their people. Boscana divided the Acjachemen into two classes: the " Playanos" (who lived along the coast) and the " Serranos" (who inhabited the mountains, some three to four leagues from the Mission). The religious beliefs of the two groups as related to creation differed quite profoundly. The Playanos held that an all-powerful and unseen being called " Nocuma" brought about the earth and the sea, together with all of the trees, plants, and animals of sky, land, and water contained therein. The Serranos, on the other hand, believed in two separate but related existences: the "existence above" and the "existence below." These states of being were "altogether explicable and indefinite" (like brother and sister), and it was the fruits of the union of these two entities that created "...the rocks and sands of the earth; then trees, shrubbery, herbs and grass; then animals". In 1908, noted cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber published the following observations with regard to the Juaneño religious observances: We know that they adore a large bird similar to a kite, which they raise with the greatest of care from the time it is young, and they hold to many errors regarding it. When a new moon shows itself they make a great outcry, which manifests their interest ("negosijo"). If there is an eclipse of the sun or of the moon, they shout with still louder outcries, beating the ground, skins, or mats with sticks, which shows their concerns and uneasiness.


Mission Period (1769”“1833)
Father Juan Crespí­, as a member of the PortolàExpedition of 1769, authored the first written account of actual interaction between Franciscan friars and the indigenous population in the region that today makes up Orange County, after the group passed through on July 22 of that year. The travelers officially named the area after Santa Maria Magdalena (though it would also come to be called the Arroyo de la Quema and Cañada del Incendio, "Wildfire Hollow"). In early 1775, Don Antonio Marí­a de Bucareli y Ursúa, Viceroy of New Spain, authorized the establishment of two additional mission sites, one of these to be placed at a logical halfway point between Mission San Diego de Alcalá and Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. The viceroy had already selected the patron saint for the new settlement, "San Juan Capistrano." At the proposed site, located approximately 26 leguas ( Spanish Leagues) north of San Diego, 18 leagues south of San Gabriel, and half a league from the Pacific Ocean, an enramada ( arbor) was constructed, two bronze bells were hung from the branch of a nearby tree, and a wooden cross was erected. The grounds were consecrated by Father Fermí­n Lasuén of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on October 30, 1775 (the last day of the octave after the feast of San Juan Capistrano), near an Indian settlement named Sajavit; thus, La Misión de San Juan Capistrano de Sajavit was founded. Assisting clergy Father Gregório Amúrrio of Mission San Luis Obispo arrived from San Gabriel eight days later with a supply of goods and cattle. Unfortunately, word arrived from San Diego at the same time that a group of natives attacked the mission and brutally murdered one of the missionaries (Father Luí­s Jayme). Since it was feared at the time that any hostile action by the natives against the few burgeoning outposts might break Spain's tenuous hold on Alta California, the fathers quickly buried the San Juan Capistrano Mission bells. Lieutenant José Francisco Ortega, military leader of the expedition, led all but a small contingent of Spanish soldiers back to El Presidio de San Diego to help quell the uprising; the priests, along with the few remaining soldiers as an escort, gathered up their belongings and fled to the safety of the Presido, where they were given further details of the disaster. One year later Father Serra himself, along with Fathers Amúrrio and Pablo de Mugártegui, took up work on the Mission at San Juan Capistrano; the contingent, accompanied by eleven soldiers, arrived on October 30 or 31st, 1776. Upon their return to the site today known as " Mission Vieja," the party excavated the bells and constructed a new arbor; the original wooden cross was, to their surprise, still standing. Father Serra celebrated High Mass in thanksgiving on November 1, 1776"celebrated ever since as the official founding date. Due to an inadequate water supply the Mission site was subsequently relocated approximately three miles to the west near the Indian village of Acágcheme. The new venue was strategically placed above two nearby streams, the Trabuco and the San Juan. Mission San Gabriel provided cattle and neophyte labor to assist in the development of new the Mission. Father Amúrrio performed the Mission's first baptism on December 19 of that year (a total of 4,639 souls were converted at the Mission between 1776 and 1847. ) The first Indian marriage was blessed by Father Mugártegui on the feast of the "Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary," January 23, 1777. Father Mugártegui also presided over the first burial ceremony on July 13 (the first burial on Mission grounds would not take place until March 9, 1781). The Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials are all intact and preserved at the Mission, as is the Confirmation Register (San Juan Capistrano is one of the few Missions to have retained this document). Father Serra visited the Mission for the first time since its founding and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation on October 22. In 1778, the first adobe capilla (chapel) was blessed. It was replaced by a larger, 115-foot (35 m) long house of worship in 1782, which is regarded as the oldest standing building in California. Known proudly as the "Serra Chapel," it also has the distinction of being the only remaining church in which the padre is known to have officiated (" Mission Dolores" was still under construction at the time of Serra's visit there). Father Serra presided over the confirmations of 213 people on October 12 and 13, 1783; divine services are held there to this day. By the time of the chapel's completion, living quarters, kitchens ( pozolera), workshops, storerooms, soldiers' barracks ( cuartels), and a number of other ancillary buildings had also been erected, effectively forming the main cuadrángulo (quadrangle). California's first vineyard was located on the Mission grounds, with the planting of the " Mission" or "Criollo" grape in 1779, one grown extensively throughout Spanish America at the time but with "an uncertain European origin." It was the only grape grown in the Mission system throughout the mid-19th century. The first winery in Alta California was built in San Juan Capistrano in 1783; both red and white wines (sweet and dry), brandy, and a port-like fortified wine called Angelica were all produced from the Mission grape. In 1791, the Mission's two original bells were removed from the tree branch on which they had been hanging for the previous fifteen years and placed within a permanent mounting. Over the next two decades the Mission prospered, and in 1794 over seventy adobe structures were built in order to provide permanent housing for the Mission Indians, some of which comprise the oldest residential neighborhood in California. It was decided that a larger, European-style church was required to accommodate the growing population. Hoping to construct an edifice of truly magnificent proportions, the padres retained the services of maestro albañil (master stonemason) Isí­dro Aguilár of Culiacán. Aguí­lar took charge of the church's construction and set about incorporating numerous design features not found at any other California Mission, including the use of a domed roof structure made of stone as opposed to the typical flat wood roof. His elegant roof design called for six vaulted domes ( bovedas) to be built. Work was begun on "The Great Stone Church" (the only chapel building in Alta California not constructed out of adobe) on February 2, 1797. It was laid out in the shape of a cross, measuring 180 feet (55 m) long by 40 feet (12 m) wide with 50-foot (15 m) high walls, and included a 120-foot (37 m) tall campanile (bell tower) located adjacent to the main entrance. Local legend has it that the tower could be seen for ten miles (16 km) or more, and that the bells could be heard from even farther away. The sandstone building sat on a foundation seven feet thick. Construction efforts required the participation of the entire neophyte population. Stones were quarried from gullies and creek beds up to six miles (10 km) away and transported in carts ( carretas) drawn by oxen, carried by hand, and even dragged to the building site. Limestone was crushed into a powder on the Mission grounds to create a mortar that was more erosion-resistant than the actual stones. On the afternoon of November 22, 1800, tremors from the 6.5-magnitude San Diego Earthquake cracked the walls of the rising edifice, necessitating that repair work be performed. Unfortunately, Señor Aguilár died six years into the project; his work was carried on by the padres and their charges, who made their best attempts to emulate the existing construction. Lacking the skills of a master mason, however, led to irregular walls and necessitated the addition of a seventh roof dome. The church was finally completed in 1806, and blessed by Fray Estévan Tapí­s on the evening of September 7; a two-day long fiesta followed. The sanctuary floors were paved with diamond-shaped tiles, and brick-lined niches displayed the statues of various saints. It was by all accounts the most magnificent in all of California and a three-day feast was held in celebration of this monumental achievement. Tragedy struck the settlement when on the morning of December 8, 1812, the "Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin", a series of massive earthquakes shook Southern California during the first Sunday service. The 7.0-magnitude Wrightwood Earthquake racked the doors to the church, pinning them shut. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the bulk of the nave had come crashing down, and the bell tower was completely obliterated. Forty native worshipers who were attending mass and two boys who had been ringing the bells in the tower were buried under the rubble and lost their lives, and were subsequently interred in the Mission cemetery. This was the second major setback the outpost had suffered, and followed severe storms and flooding that had damaged Mission buildings and ruined crops earlier in the year. The padres immediately resumed holding services in Serra's Church. Within a year a brick campanario ("bell wall") had been erected between the ruins of the stone church and the Mission's first chapel to support the four bells salvaged from the rubble of the campanile. As the transept, sanctuary ( reredos), and sacristia ( sacristy) were all left standing, an attempt was made to rebuild the stone church in 1815 which failed due to a lack of construction expertise (the latter is the only element that is completely intact today). Consequently, all of the construction work undertaken at the Mission grounds thereafter was of a strictly utilitarian nature. Father José Barona and Father Boscana oversaw the construction of a small infirmary ( hospital) building (located just outside the northwestern corner of the quadrangle) in 1814, "for the convenience of the sick." It is here that Juaneño medicine men used traditional methods to heal the sick and injured. Archaeological excavations in 1937 and 1979 unearthed what are believed to be the building's foundations. On December 14, 1818, the French privateer Hipólito Bouchard, sailing under the flag of the "United Provinces of Rio de la Plata" ( Argentina), brought his ships La Argentina and Santa Rosa to within sight of the Mission; aware that Bouchard (today known as "California's only pirate") had recently conducted raids on the settlements at Monterey and Santa Barbara, Comandante Ruí­z had sent forth a party of thirty men (under the leadership of a young Spanish lieutenant named Santiago Argüello) to protect the Mission at first news of the approach on the 13th. Two members of Bouchard's contingent made contact with the garrison soldiers and made their demand for provisions, which was rebuffed with added threats: Lieutenant Argüello replied that if the ships did not sail away the garrison would gladly provide "an immediate supply of shot and shell". In response, " Pirata Buchar" (as he was referred to by the Californios) ordered an assault on the Mission, sending some 140 men and two or three violentos (light howitzer cannon) to take the needed supplies by force. The Mission guards engaged the attackers but were overwhelmed; the marauders looted the Mission warehouses and left minor damage to several Mission buildings in their wake, and reportedly set fire to a few of the outlying straw houses. Reinforcements from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, led by Comandante Guerra from El Presidio Real de Santa Bárbara, arrived the next day to no avail as the ships had already set sail. Regarded today as one of the more colorful events in the Mission's history, an annual celebration is held to memorialize "The Day that Pirates Sacked the Mission." Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The 1820s and 30s saw a gradual decline in the Mission's status. Disease thinned out the once ample cattle herds, and a sudden infestation of mustard weed made it increasingly difficult to cultivate crops. Floods and droughts took their toll as well. But the biggest threat to the Mission's stability came from the presence of Spanish settlers who sought to take over Capistrano's fertile lands. Over time the disillusioned Indian population gradually left the Mission, and without regular maintenance its physical deterioration continued at an accelerated rate. Nevertheless, there was sufficient activity along El Camino Real to justify the construction of the Las Flores Asistencia in 1823. This facility, situated halfway between San Juan Capistrano and the Mission at San Luis Rey, was intended to act primarily as a rest stop for traveling clergy. Around 1820 an estancia (station) was established a few miles north on the banks of the Santa Ana River to accommodate the Mission's sizeable cattle herd. The adobe structure built to house the mayordomo and vaqueros ( cowboys) who tended the Mission herds is known today as the Diego Sepúlveda Adobe. Upon his death in 1825, Don José Antonio Yorba I (a prominent Spanish land owner and member of the PortolàExpedition), was buried in the Mission's ceremony in an unmarked grave; a cenotaph was later placed in Yorba's honor. José Marí­a de Echeandí­a, the first native Mexican to be elected Governor of Alta California, issued his "Proclamation of Emancipation" (or " Prevenciónes de Emancipacion") on July 25, 1826. All Indians within the military districts of San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Monterey who were found qualified were freed from missionary rule and made eligible to become Mexican citizens; those who wished to remain under mission tutelage were exempted from most forms of corporal punishment. Catholic historian Zephyrin Engelhardt referred to Echeandí­a as "...an avowed enemy of the religious orders." Despite the fact that Echeandí­a's emancipation plan was met with little encouragement from the neophytes who populated the southern missions, he was nonetheless determined to test the scheme on a large scale at Mission San Juan Capistrano. To that end, he appointed a board of comisianados (commissioners) to oversee the emancipation of the Indians. In response to the proclamation, Father Barona refused to take the oath of allegiance to what he saw as the "bogus republic of Mexico" despite the fact that he, along with all but two of the other Spanish missionaries, had previously sworn to the Independence of Mexico. The Mexican government passed legislation on December 20, 1827, that mandated the expulsion of all Spaniards younger than sixty years of age from Mexican territories; Governor Echeandí­a nevertheless intervened on Barona's behalf in order to prevent his deportation once the law of took effect in California. Even before Mexico had gained its independence, the Mission had begun its decline. Although Governor José Figueroa (who took office in 1833) initially attempted to keep the mission system intact, the Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833. The Act also provided for the colonization of both Alta and Baja California, the expenses of this latter move to be borne by the proceeds gained from the sale of the mission property to private interests. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the very first to feel the effects of this legislation the following year when, on August 9, 1834, Governor Figueroa issued his "Decree of Confiscation."

Rancho Period (1834”“1849)
On November 22, 1834, commissioner Juan José Rocha formally acknowledged receipt of the Decree of Confiscation. The final inventory for Mission San Juan Capistrano was compiled by Father José Maria de Zalvidea and four of the commissioners, and included:

  • buildings ($7,298);
  • chapel ($1,250);
  • furnishings, tools, and implements ($14,768);
  • contents of chapel and sacristy ($15,568);
  • ranchos of San Mateo and Mission Viejo ($12,019); and
  • library holdings ($490)

for a total valuation of $54,456. Mission credits totaled $13,123 while debts equaled a mere $1,410. The Mission library included three volumes of Juan de Torquemada and twelve volumes of the Año Cristiano . The names of 2,000 neophytes were carried on the Mission rolls. Mission agricultural holdings for that year consisted of:

  • 8,000 head of cattle;
  • 4,000 sheep;
  • 80 pigs;
  • 50 horses;
  • 9 mules;
  • 150 fanegas of maize;
  • 20 fanegas of beans; and
  • 50 barrels of wine and brandy.

Thereafter, the Franciscans all but abandoned the Mission, taking with them most everything of value, after which the locals plundered many of the Mission buildings for construction materials. According to Bancroft, "The population of San Juan Capistrano in 1834 had decreased to 861 souls, and in 1840 it was probably less than 500 with less than 100 at the pueblo proper; while in its crops San Juan (Capistrano) showed a larger deterioration than any other (missionary) establishment." By 1835, little of the Mission's assets remained, though the manufacture of hides and tallow continued in full swing as described in Richard Henry Dana's classic novel Two Years Before the Mast . The Mission was declared to be "in a ruinous state" and the Indian pueblo dissolved in 1841. San Juan Capistrano was officially designated by Governor Juan B. Alvarado as a secular Mexican town on July 29, at which time those few who still resided at the Mission were granted sections of land to use as their own. Following this change in status, the area around the Mission began to decay rapidly; Santiago Argüello (then prefect of the southern District of Los Angeles) complained to the Commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara, Don José de la Guerra y Noriega, that "...the unfortunate missions of San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano been converted into brothels of the mayordomos. Four years later, the Mission property was auctioned off under questionable circumstances for $710 worth of tallow and hides (equivalent to $15,000 in 2004 dollars) to Englishman John (Don Juan) Forster (Governor Pí­o Pico's brother-in-law, whose family would take up residence in the friars' quarters for the next twenty years) and his partner James McKinley. More families would subsequently take up residence in other portions of the Mission buildings. Father José Maria Zalvidea left San Juan Capistrano on or about November 25, 1842, when Mission San Luis Rey de Francia's Father Ibarra died, leaving the Mission without a resident priest for the first time (Zalvidea had been the Mission's sole priest ever since the death of Father Josef Barona in 1831.) The first secular priest to take charge of the mission, Reverend José Maria Rosáles, arrived on October 8, 1843; Father Vicente Pascual Oliva, the last resident missionary, died on January 2, 1848.

California Statehood (1850”“1900)
Because virtually all of the artwork at the missions served either a devotional or didactic purpose, there was no underlying reason for the mission residents to record their surroundings graphically; visitors, however, found them to be objects of curiosity. During the 1850s a number of artists found gainful employment as draftsmen attached to expeditions sent to map the Pacific coastline and the border between California and Mexico (as well as plot practical railroad routes); many of the drawings were reproduced as lithographs in the expedition reports. The oldest surviving sketch of the Mission, dating back to 1850 and now in the collection of the Bancroft Library, shows that the domes above the stone church's transept, along with the main dome and cupola (lantern house) located above the sanctuary, survived the 1812 'quake. The earliest known photograph of San Juan Capistrano was taken by German-born artist Edward Vischer in 1860. Even before that time, however, the ruins at San Juan Capistrano and its stone church had been romanticized by landscape painters, writers, and historians. The ruins have been compared to those of Greece and Rome, and have at various times been referred to as the " Alhambra of America," the "American Acropolis," and the " Melrose Abbey of the West." Also in 1860, an abortive attempt at restoring the stone church was the cause of its additional disintegration, forcing the domes over the transept and sanctuary to collapse.


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