Construction of Mission San Juan Capistano,
“Jewel of the Missions”, began in November 1776. Father
Junipero Serra named it for St. John of Capestrano in Italy, a warrior
priest of the 15th century. This is the seventh in the chain of
missions founded by Father Serra. The current location is the second
site because of a lack of water at the first. It has been speculated
that the first site may have been located near San Juan Creek in
the area of the Lacouague Ranch or perhaps on Rancho Mission Viejo
or even where the Vejar-Pryor/Hide House stands.
Father Ferman Francisco de Lausen and
Father Gregorio Amurrio made a beginning on October 30, 1775, when
friendly indigenous natives helped build the first structure. By
November 6, 1775, however, news arrived that Indians had attacked
San Diego. Lt. Jose Francisco de Ortega, who helped explore the
area and selected the site, left for San Diego and urged the padres
to leave as well. The mission bells were buried and everyone left.
In September 1776, Father Amurrio returned to the Capistrano area
with Father Pablo Mugartegui and ten soldiers. They found the cross
still standing and uncovered the bells. On November 1, 1776, Father
Serra personally and officially founded Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The mission was built as a vast quadrangle
and was completely self-sufficient. It housed storage rooms for
provisions, shops for making various needed materials, living and
dining facilities for the priests and dormitories for the Acjachemen
Indian neophytes (today known as Juanenos). A wing to the south
of the quadrangle housed the soldiers, a jail and a powder magazine.
The entire mission is built of adobe
bricks covered with a “stucco” of adobe mud. The roof
is of fired clay tiles. It is not a perfect square as the priest
paced off the measurements without using any surveyor’s instruments.
Much of the demolished mission has been restored, but work continues
on preserving what is left.
The mission thrived and in 1796, after
granaries and homes for the neophytes (Juanenos) had been built,
Fathers Vincente Fuster and Juan Norberto de Santiago began construction
of the Great Stone Church. Isidro Aguilar, a half-Aztec stonemason
from Culican, Mexico, was brought to California to supervise the
construction of this massive church. Isidro guided the construction
of the church until his death in 1803. The church was completed
and dedicated September 7, 1806, with many prayers and feasting
which went on for days.
The Great Stone Church stood only six
years until December 8, 1812, when a tremendous earthquake shook
most of Southern California from San Luis Obispo to Oceanside. The
church bell tower fell into the church, carrying two young boys
to their deaths. Mass had just started when the quake occurred and
the parishioners panicked, trying to get out of the doors which
had twisted in the quake and would not open. Those who followed
the priests’ directions to go to the sacristy survived, others
did not. When the shaking finally stopped, forty people had died.
The church was in ruins and was never rebuilt.
In August 1834, the Mexican government
confiscated the property of the mission and many Juanenos left San
Juan Capistrano. In 1845, Governor Pio Pico sold the mission at
auction to James McKinley, a merchant, and John Forster, Pico’s
brother-in-law, for $710. Forster promptly moved his family into
the mission (gift shop area) and James McKinley is never again mentioned
in mission history.
Mission San Juan Capistrano steadily
declined after the earthquake in 1812. It does not appear that Mr.
Forster ever did much maintenance on the mission buildings. As one
of his last acts before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln
signed the documents that returned the mission buildings to the
Catholic Church in 1865. Forster moved his family to Rancho Santa
Margarita y Las Flores, today Camp Pendleton.
Preservation of the mission was begun
in 1895 when the Landmarks Club of Los Angeles, under the direction
of President Charles F. Lummis, sought to preserve the missions
of California. They came to San Juan and re-roofed many of the buildings
of the quadrangle and repaved a mile of walkways with asphalt and
gravel. The Landmarks Club put a new shake roof on the Soldiers
Barracks and repaired holes in the walls. Feeling the mission buildings
were now in more stable condition, the Club turned to another mission.
Without their help, it is uncertain whether any of the buildings
would have survived to further restoration by Father St. John O’Sullivan.
Father O’Sullivan had met Father
Quetu, a resident of San Juan Capistrano, at a chance meeting in
Arizona. O’Sullivan was suffering from tuberculosis and Father
Quetu suggested he come to visit him. In 1910 Father O’Sullivan
stepped off a train in town, walked a block to the corner of Verdugo
and Camino Capistrano and saw the mission for the first time. He
was struck by the magnificent ruin of the mission and decided to
stay for the remainder of his life and restore it. He became the
first resident priest since 1886.
Working with his own hands, carving
window frames, making beams, and uncovering and storing items for
later use, O’Sullivan restored the mission and his own health.
Slowly others came to work with him and by the time of his death
in 1933, the mission was in much better condition than it had been
for decades. Restoration work continued on the Mission and people
became more interested in the history of Mission San Juan Capistrano
and the town.
During the1950s much was accomplished
at the mission. Fund drives were undertaken for restoration. A school
was opened on the mission grounds, a new parish hall and a gym were
built. Sidewalks were installed and restoration was started on the
ruined west wing. Corridor arches were rebuilt using original arches
still standing as examples; beams of the mission were renovated
and repaired. The Serra Chapel was repainted to its original splendor
and the retablo (the ornate background of the altar) was redone
with gold leaf.
One of the most ambitious projects
of the 1980s was the construction of a new parish church located
at the corner of Camino Capistrano and Acjachema Street. It was
built along the lines of the Great Stone Church except it is 1/5th
larger than the original. The church was designed by architect John
Bartlett and interior design was researched by historian Norman
Neuerberg, who personally painted many of the designs. The church
was dedicated in 1987.
Also in1987 a stabilization program
was inaugurated to ensure that the Great Stone Church continues
to be a focal point of the mission. Nearly two centuries of deterioration
had caused a great amount of damage. It was possibly the largest
preservation project in California.
Today the mission buildings are used
for various purposes. The north wing was formerly the convent for
the teaching nuns and today is used for offices and other utilitarian
purposes. The west wing was formerly shops for weaving, sewing and
other chores and is now a museum. The adjacent iron smelter, wine
and olive presses and the area for treating hides and making tallow
are on display.
The east wing is where the Serra Chapel
is located. The beautiful rare old retablo behind the altar, carved
from cedar by skilled Spanish craftsman of more than 200 years ago.
It had been sent in 1906 from Spain to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
where it was stored. In 1924 Father O’Sullivan had asked for
permission to go to Mexico to find an appropriate altar for the
Serra Chapel. Instead, the Bishop gave O’Sullivan permission
to install this retablo in Father Serra’s old church. The
retablo was so tall that the roof of the Chapel had to be raised.
It is covered with gold leaf which is renewed periodically. The
parish rectory is in this wing. Outside on the eastern side of the
Chapel are the old mission Indian cemetery and the grave of Monsignor
St. John O’Sullivan.
The south corridor contains historical
depictions and displays. The soldiers’ barracks have been
renovated and are used for art shows. The companario wall (bell
wall) has a statue of Father Serra and a Juaneno Indian boy near
the south side. On the north side is the Sacred Garden, a fountain,
and commemorative plaque honoring Paul Arbiso. Paul was the Mission
bell ringer for more than 60 years and the Patriarch of San Juan
Capistrano for 23 years.
A new parish school with additional
buildings for parish activities, such as conferences and parish
offices has also been completed on the north side of the mission
In many ways the mission grounds are
still the center of activities in the City of San Juan Capistrano.
The central courtyard has become the setting for concerts, private
events, garden, arts, and crafts shows. Something is always going
on at the mission.
In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II
decreed that Mission Church San Juan Capistrano, is to be honored
with the title "Basilica".
...more History & Mystery on SJC.net
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