If these crumbling walls could speak, would they share tales of the past or keep them stowed secretly between worn adobe bricks? Would they unlock historical or religious mysteries and give face to spirits reportedly wandering the grounds?
Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded over 230 years ago in southern California, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego would have much to tell.
Stepping onto Mission grounds gave me a sense of peace and tranquility. Others seemed to experience the same. Busloads of school children reveled more softly than usual in the sun filled courtyard. Artists feathered colors on canvasses, visitors leisurely toured the site and a hummingbird rested on a tree branch taking it all in.
Known as the “Jewel of the Missions” and established by Father Junipero Serra in 1776, it numbers seventh in the twenty-one string of missions in California. Remnants of past glories and tragedies blend with current restorative work making it a place of contrasts, where past meets present. Beautiful gardens now carpet the once harsh terrain. Aged, textured arches beckoned us down corridors to buildings filled with museum-style displays and relics depicting bygone days.
It is said that spirits travel these halls. One story tells of a “faceless monk” typically seen hurrying in the darkness, his back always toward you. Others claim that a soldier’s ghost guards the grounds and his heavy boots can be heard pacing back and forth.
The once glorious “Great Stone Church” stands in ruins today. Under construction from 1797 to 1806 it met its demise just six years later. On December 8, 1812, worshippers filled the church while two young boys rang bells from high atop the bell tower. Suddenly, an earthquake slammed into the Los Angeles area pinning church doors shut, collapsing the bell tower onto the main assembly area and tragically claiming over 40 souls. A young girl, Magdalena, was among those buried alive. “It is said that on a night of a half-moon one can see her face in the remaining window of the Great Stone Church, still doing penance for her forbidden love.”
To honor those lost, the church will not be renovated, just preserved for future generations. But in 1986, Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano was constructed offsite in the “spirit and likeness” of its predecessor. Not an exact replica due to the extent of the destruction but a present day tribute nonetheless.
Despite the Basilica’s grandeur, Serra’s Church stole my heart. Standing in the entry, low melodic tones of a Gregorian Chant drew me in. I couldn’t help but look up to see if the choir was in the loft. Candles flickered, light poured through side windows and a warm spirit of reverence hung in the air.
I lit a candle for a dear family friend who passed away the day before, Andy Siever, and his family.
Leaving the renovated church I felt that past and present harmonized beautifully on this one. On a historical note, the chapel is the only standing church where Father Serra celebrated mass.
And, yes, swallows do return to Capistrano each year in March migrating from South America but increased urbanization and mission restoration drove most of them into more rural areas. To attract them back, the mission started a swallow vocalization program – recorded swallow mating calls are broadcast from the grounds during migratory months.
Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano continues to be a vibrant part of the community, not only hosting special events commemorating history but as a venue for education, concerts, wedding receptions, corporate events, daytime seminars and more. One of its signature events is an Adventure Sleepover – Night at the Mission…just in case you want to do some ghost hunting!
For more information, visit www.missionsjc.com
From the Mission’s website: “The Mission continues efforts in preservation, with the help of donations each year. Although the Mission is owned by the Catholic Church, it is run by a non-profit organization. This means, Mission San Juan Capistrano does not receive any funding from the Catholic Church, State, or Federal Government for operation or preservation. It depends entirely on the generous contributions of visitors and benefactors. With the help of the public, the Mission can continue to be an inspirational historic, cultural, and religious site.”
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