Brief History of San Juan Bautista

Spanish Corporal Juan Ballesteros and five men came to the site of Mission San Juan Bautista (“Saint John the Baptist”) in the late spring of 1797. In a month they had erected a chapel, houses for themselves and the padres, and a granary. Then Father Lasuén arrived for the formal dedication on June 24, 1797. The first baptism, an Indian lad about ten years old, occurred a little over two weeks later, with the Corporal as sponsor. The first white baptism was that of a son of the corporal. The first funeral, in September, was for the corporal’s infant son. Thus, by these simple acts of faith, Corporal Ballesteros gained his small niche in mission history.

Unknowingly, the padres had located the mission directly on a great earthquake fault. Sometimes there were as many as six earth shocks a day. Walls of buildings were split from top to bottom, and great cracks appeared in the ground. Ignoring the hazard, a church began to rise from the same site in 1803. It was to be the grandest church in the chain, 72 x 188 feet, with three aisles and adobe walls three feet thick. However, the tremendous earthquake of 1906 forced abandonment of the outside aisles, and the filling in of the arches separating the aisles.

The Bell of Mission San Juan Bautista

Thomas Doak, a sailor from Boston who jumped ship in Monterey in 1816, built and decorated the reredos behind the altar in the new church. He is thought to have been the first American settler in California. The original tiles are still on the floor of the church. A baptismal font, forty inches in diameter, was sculpted by Indians from a huge block of native sandstone. A side door leads to the old cemetery on the shady north side of the church. The Indians were buried in their blankets, without coffins. As at other locations, the Mission Indians ultimately disappeared.

The history of San Juan after secularization is happier that at most other missions, however. The mixed population continued to support the Church, and services have been held without interruption. Today modern buildings at the rear of the beautiful mission garden house rectory and parish offices, while the old monastery wing, with its colonnade of arches facing the only remaining Spanish plaza in California, houses a fine museum. Hidden steel beams give earthquake protection, the bell wall has been completed, and the side aisles restored. The grand church is at last finished.