History of San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano has the unique distinction of being twice-founded. The first occasion was in 1775, after the Father Presidente Junípero Serra had convinced Captain Rivera that a mission to interrupt the long journey between San Diego and San Gabriel was urgently needed. Soon after, Father Fermin Lasuén and a fellow padre were sent from Camel and, with the assistance of a small band of soldiers from San Diego, they set up a cross and dedicated the new mission on October 30, 1775.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Eight days later, news arrived from San Diego which interrupted the mission’s brief existence. Indians had attacked the San Diego settlement and killed one of the fathers. Such information was extremely serious in these early days, for a hostile Indian attack of any size might destroy the few established outposts, and end Spanish occupation of California. Accordingly, Fr. Lasuén and his party buried the heavy bells and, taking the remainder of their goods, hurried back along the coast to the presidio at San Diego.

One year passed before the countryside again seemed peaceful enough to justify a return to Capistrano. This time Fr. Serra was at the head of the founding party. When they arrived at the former site, the Father Presidente was pleased to see the cross still standing. Soon the bells were recovered, hung from a tree, and mission life began. The date of the second founding is given as November 1, 1776. A year later, the first adobe church stood ready for use and, in 1791, the bells were removed from the tree on which they had hung since the founding and placed in a tower.

By 1797, the needs of the mission led to plans for a larger church building. The padres decided that a church of really great proportions would eventually be needed. The services of Isidor Aguilar, an expert stonemason, were secured and he was placed in charge of the construction.

The Mexican stonemason incorporated many features of design into the structure which have not been found in any of the other missions. Instead of the usual flat roof, the San Juan Capistrano church ceiling was divided into six great domes. To provide stone for the construction, the entire neophyte population spent endless days in dragging boulders from the creek beds and valley gullies that led up from the sea. Limestone was gathered and crushed into powder to from a mortar which proved more resistant to erosion than the stone itself.

Particular of Mission San Juan Capistrano

The church was nine years in the building and, unfortunately for Capistrano, the stonemason died three years before the work was completed. The Indians and the padres carried on, relying on what they had learned during the previous years. The absence of sound supervision was reflected in the irregular measurements of the walls, and the buildings were required to add a seventh dome to even the structure.

The church was finished in 1806 but the inhabitants of the mission were not permitted to enjoy their proud new edifice for long. In 1812, an earthquake nullified the result of nine years of arduous labor, by sending the beautiful church crashing to the ground, and taking the lives of 40 neophytes. The exhausted missionaries did not even attempt to rebuild the fallen structure, but returned to worship in the original little church. From that time on, the only construction work performed about the mission was nearly always of a utilitarian character. The great piles of ruins, including the soap vats, brick kilns, tannery tanks and presses, still give eloquent testimony to the vast amount of practical construction.

In 1818, the mission was visited by California’s only pirate, Bouchard. Equipped with two sailing ships, he attacked missions on the coast in the name of a South American province which was engaged in revolt against Spain. His connection with the revolutionists was more fiction than fact, but he found it provided a convenient excuse for his attack on the settlements. Having been warned of Bouchard’s approach, Padre Geronimo Boscano gathered up his neophytes and fled into the interior. The little mission guard made a feeble effort to hold off the pirates, and succeeded only in spurring their foes to do greater damage. When the padres returned, they blamed the soldiers more than the pirates for conditions they found, especially as the wine barrels seemed to be the principal objects of attack.

The good days were slipping by. After the arrival of the Mexican Governor Echeandia in 1824, the difficult period began. He promptly issued a statement, advising the Indians they were not obliged to follow the commands of the Franciscans. Thus discipline, upon which Capistrano’s economy depended, began to break down. When Governor Figueroa chose Capistrano as the site for a pueblo of free Indians in 1833, missions activity all but ended.

While the governor’s attempt to provide the Indians with an opportunity for independence was completely genuine, he failed to provide the legal safeguards which would give them time for adjustment. Had he lived long enough, Figueroa might have succeeded in protecting some of the Indians’ share of mission properties, but he was buried at Santa Barbara less than three years after founding the pueblo. The land soon gravitated into the hands of the white settlers, and the last of San Juan Capistrano’s property was disposed of in 1845 when Pio Pico sold it to his brother-in-law and a partner.

In 1865, part of the former mission holdings were returned to the Church and some attempt was made to halt further decay. The results were ineffective and the condition of the mission continued to deteriorate until 1895 when Charles Fletcher Lummis, founder of the Landmarks Club, set up a more permanent protection.

The arrival of Father John O’Sullivan in 1910 was a stroke of exceptional good luck. The new secular priest was keenly aware of the historic value of his new post, and he worked untiringly to make a worthwhile monument of the former mission. In 1922, he discovered the original little church which for many years had been used as a granary and storeroom. Fr. O’Sullivan started the restoration, which ultimately produced the beautiful church that stands in the grounds today. The impressive golden altar, a gift of the late Archbishop Cantwell of Los Angeles who had received it from Spain in 1906, and other decorations were acquired during the course of reconstruction. Of particular interest is the fact that the little church at Capistrano is the only existing structure in which Father Junípero Serra is known to have said Mass.

The remains of Mission San Juan Capistrano

Once the visitor enters the mission grounds, he finds paths that seem to lead everywhere. To the right is the ruin of the great stone church. A stretch of wall and a single dome remain but they are more than enough to give evidence of the builder’s skill. Nearby is the campanario, or bell-wall, erected in 1813, and still used to ring the mission calls. The buildings in which the daily tasks of mission life were once performed attract attention at every turn. Corridors and cloister arches angle off in every direction, leading to the old kitchens, the monastery and to Fr. Serra’s little church. Throughout the extensive grounds are other relics which show the great scope of the mission industries. There are, too, many lovely pools and endless beds of flowers bearing out San Juan Capistrano’s title of “The Jewel of the Missions.”

View of San Juan Capistrano

Today a new parish church stands nearby, built in the style of the ruined stone church.