Another day, another Mission.
Are not words I would use to describe the beauty, serenity, and tranquility of the Mission San Juan Capistrano! The last words that can be used to describe this incredible complex of gardens, fountains, and historic buildings are “ho” and “hum.”
J and I set out early Sunday morning for another one of our day adventures – I had had a particularly bad day at work the day before and I needed something fresh and invigorating to revitalize my spirits. We had talked about visiting San Juan Capistrano before, as we passed by it on our few adventures south to San Diego, and decided that today was the day! It was bright, sunny, gloriously warm and clear, and in short, a perfect Southern California day.
I was particularly proud of my genius too because I suggested we head to breakfast at our favorite diner, visit the Mission, and then head down to the beach at Dana Point. We could have a full day out and about, exploring history, art, and nature, and looking for magic.
Well, we found the magic alright. It was everywhere!
Upon walking into the San Juan Capistrano Mission complex, you are greeted with swells of bright colors and the soothing sounds of water pooling in stone fountains. Bright oranges – the California poppy – deep reds and purples – the prickly pear cactus flower – and bright reds and yellows – roses – surrounded us as we navigated the dirt trails through the entry courtyard. It was, in a word, breathtaking. And after stops to soak in all the color, and take photos of these amazing blossoms, we started heading towards the ruins …
The Mission was first founded in October 1775. It was, surprisingly, one of the few California Missions to have two founding dates. The first padres to establish San Juan Capistrano were attacked by the local Native Americans within days of arriving. One padre was killed in the ambush, and the survivors fled south to San Diego. Before they left, they buried the two bells they brought with them for their church.
In October 1776, Father Junipero Serra himself – the father of the California Missions – returned to the site with a contingent of 11 soldiers. They unearthed the bells buried by the founding padres the previous year, and started construction on the Mission complex. Father Serra celebrated a mass of thanksgiving on November 1, 1776; the date that is now designated as Mission San Juan Capistrano’s official founding.
San Juan Capistrano thrived. In 1782, the Mission’s chapel was constructed, and, still standing to this day, it retains the honor of being the oldest building in California. It is also the only chapel remaining in the entire Mission system in which Father Serra is known to have officiated mass. For that reason, the chapel is now referred to as The Serra Chapel.
And in 1797, work began on what would ultimately come to be the Great Stone Church. This massive structure – measuring an astonishing 180 feet long by 40 feet wide with 50-foot walls and a bell tower that stood an impressive 120-feet high – was the first and only building in Alta California not built out of adobe.
The church itself did not stand long. It was finally finished in 1806, and a mere 6 years later, the area was devastated by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The bell tower came down, and part of the church itself collapsed. 42 people lost their lives in the disaster because the earthquake struck during the mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and they were later buried in San Juan Capistrano’s cemetery. Attempts were made to reconstruct the church, but the expertise needed for such a project was non-existent. And the ruins of that massive stone structure are still standing in the courtyard to this day. The bells were recovered from the destroyed bell tower however, and they were installed in a campanario or bell wall that connected the Serra Chapel with the ruins of the Great Stone Church. The bells and their campanario are still there.
Time marches forward, and the Mexican War of Independence ended the Catholic Church’s control of the Missions and their land. Those enormous tracts of land formerly owned by the Spanish padres were converted into large sheep and cattle ranches for wealthy Mexican families. San Juan Capistrano met the same fate as her 20 sisters, eventually becoming the private property of Don Juan Forster, California Governor Pio Pico’s brother-in-law.
And after California joined the United States in 1851, there was a period of massive decline across the Mission system. Until the 1880s, and a resurgence of interest in California’s Spanish past. In 1910, a tuberculosic priest named John O’Sullivan arrived at San Juan Capistrano, and he made it his life’s mission to restore the former beauty of the complex. It is thanks to O’Sullivan’s work over the first 25 years of the 20th century that San Juan Capistrano is in such great shape.
And it is in amazing shape. I haven’t visited many other missions that are as beautiful and as well preserved as San Juan Capistrano (San Fernando and Santa Barbara come to mind). And what history! Not only does San Juan Capistrano have the Serra Chapel, but the first vineyard in California was started here, and the oldest metal furnaces in California are here as well! We saw the ruins of the zanjas or aqueducts that brought water into the complex, the furnaces, and the wine vats – both interior and exterior – not to mention a beautiful collection of Native American artifacts. The Acjachemen was the local nation that lived in and around the San Juan Capistrano area, and I found them interestingly similar to the Chumash and Tataviam nations in their culture and social structure. As with the latter two, the Acjachemen were amazing basket weavers, and the beauty of their baskets prompted me to purchase a lovely catalog on Native American basketry from the Mission Gift Store.
San Juan Capistrano is most famous, however, for the annual return of the American cliff swallow, a beautiful red, brown, blue, and white bird that winters in Argentina and summers in the American southwest. Arriving in mid-March, the swallows build mud nests up under the eaves of the Mission’s buildings. We did not see any of these birds – very very very very sadly since they are supposed to stick around through mid-October – on our visit, but J and I are definitely planning a trip back down to San Juan Capistrano next March to watch the arrival!
We did, however, see tons and tons of the Monarch butterfly. These gorgeous little guys with their bright orange, black, and white wings were fluttering all over the gardens. At one point, I sat down on a bench and just watched a Monarch flutter around and land on a bougainvillea. It was so quiet, and so peaceful, that all the memories of my horrid day at work the day before were completely washed away.
After the Mission, we did head down to Strand Beach, which is tucked behind a rather wealthy area of Dana Point… although now that I think about it, most of Dana Point is “rather wealthy.” It was a beautifully quiet beach with bright green waves, and J and I loved frolicking in the water. Once we got used to the temperature!! And I couldn’t have been more excited since there were a few ships out to sea. One even looked kind of like a pirate ship… but I think it was a fishing boat.
We also enjoyed some great bird-watching! Among our many sightings was a black-headed gull and a whimbrel!! J and I love whimbrels – they are so cute when they run up and down the beach. J even shot some video of our little guy, and we both got a few good laughs out of it.
And when we decided to head back up to the harsh reality of life in LA, I reveled in the beauty of the day. Everything you could ask for in a dayventure!! Absolutely everything!