Brief History of San Juan Capistrano

The swallows of Capistrano, famous both in song and story, really do build their mud nests in the ruins of the old mission church, returning each year on or about March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. A church of magnificent proportions, and most ornate of any of the missions, once stood here. With a ceiling divided into six domes, it was nine years in the building, but had been used only six years when it collapsed during an earthquake in 1812. The little chapel remaining is called Fr. Serra’s Church, because it is the only building still standing anywhere in the mission chain in which it is known that the founding Father actually conducted divine services.

The bells of Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Indian attack which had killed one of the padres at San Diego had caused the founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano to be delayed a full year, until November 1, 1776. The next year a long narrow adobe church was finished. In 1791 a bell tower was completed, and the heavy bells, which had been hanging from a tree all those years, were installed. The success of the mission was such that a very large and elaborate new church was begun in 1797. Nine years in the building, native stone was used with a roof of seven concrete domes. Alas, the great church stood only six years before it tumbled to the ground in the earthquake of 1812, killing 40 Indian neophytes.

The discouraged padres did not attempt to rebuild, instead moving divine services back into their old adobe church. Mission activity soon ground to a halt after secularization, with Pio Pico’s brother-in-law receiving a good share of Capistrano’s land. For years the adobe church was used as a storeroom.

In 1922 the little old adobe church was rediscovered by a secular priest, Father John O’Sullivan. Restoration at San Juan Capistrano had already been in progress since his 1910 arrival. Under his direction work began on the church which restored it completely into the beautiful structure seen today. The impressive golden altar is not the original, but is a very old one brought from Spain early in this century. Here is the only building still standing anywhere in the California chain in which Father Serra is known to have actually officiated.

A few walls and a single dome of the great stone church survive. Known world-wide as the “home of the swallows”, these little birds return every spring to Capistrano, where favorite spots for their mud nests are among the stones of the ruined church.

Visitors of today to Mission San Juan Capistrano see a beautiful patina of age on all sides. A campanario, or bell wall, built for the mission bells the year after the earthquake, is still in use. Weathered arches and ancient fountains perpetuate the charm of yesteryears.