Day-tripping into history – Mission San Juan Capistrano St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows Festival is March 19

Story and photos by Barbara Beckley

History comes to life at Mission San Juan Capistrano

A pirate. A brilliant marketing idea. Mysteries. California’s oldest continuously occupied neighborhood. When was the last time you visited Mission San Juan Capistrano?

It had been years for me, until a few weeks ago when I drove down to Orange County. Wow! The mission is more beautiful, historically accurate, and tradition-filled than ever. A careful restoration and on-going conservation have revealed beautiful treasures. Ongoing traditions — like the ringing of the bells by hand — guided tours, and classes in Native American culture offer plenty to see and do.

Outside the mission walls, the Los Rios Street Historic District is filled with cute little shops, restaurants, wine bars, and homes dating to the 1700s.    

My visit was a day-trip. But it can easily be an overnight. The new 124-room San Juan Capistrano Mission Inn, a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel, is set to open across from the mission at the end of 2019. It’s the first new downtown hotel in 60 years. The cheaper and very nice Best Western Capistrano Inn is less than a mile away.

“You’re walking on floorboards trod by Father Serra,” Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the mission’s executive director, declared, as we entered the Serra Chapel. Mission San Juan Capistrano was established by Saint Juniper Serra in 1776 (five years after our San Gabriel Mission). An earthquake destroyed the main church in 1812. Its iconic ruins, now called the Great Stone Church, are often referred to as the American Acropolis, Ms. Adams said.

The mission’s beautifully conserved Serra Chapel is said to be the only standing church where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass (in 1783), according to Ms. Adams. “If the mission is nicknamed ‘The Jewel of the Missions,’ the 237-year-old chapel could be considered ‘the jewel of the jewel,’” she smiled. While small in size, the chapel is large in history.    

Inside the chapel I marveled at the 200-year-old Station of the Cross XII painting, which had been hidden underneath a 1971 painting for 40 years until its recent rediscovery. And beautiful 17th century murals, once covered by layers of paint, and geometrical wall designs restored in the original 17th century pattern. Outside, on our way to the cemetery and the “secret garden,” Ms. Adams pointed out where the original adobe walls, and 19th century whitewash have been purposefully exposed and conserved, above 19th century benches.

And, the crucifix with a bullet hole in it! “Wait! What?” I asked. Turns out that California’s only pirate — Hippolyte de Bouchard, a privateer — attacked the mission and surrounding town in 1818. It’s not clear if the bullet hole is that old, but obviously the mission has a lively history.

Entering the Mission Cemetery, it was heartwarming to see Father John O’Sullivan’s newly restored tomb. He’s credited with putting the mission on the world map, with his brain-storm idea of celebrating the return of the swallows on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. While the birds aren’t as prevalent as in the past, the all-day festival is a wonderful time to visit, with festivities including the traditional bell ringing, music, dancing, live entertainment, performances, and a featured program on cliff swallows. The celebrations continue on March 23 with the 61st annual Swallows Day Parade & Mercado Street Faire.  

Behind the cemetery, the Sacred Garden, also called the secret garden, is a photographer’s and a bride’s dream, with the bells in the 1813 Campanario silhouetted against the sky. “This is a favorite spot for wedding proposals,” Ms. Adams told me. And not just modern ones. In 1915, silent film star Mary Pickford spontaneously renewed her vows here to then-husband Owen Moore.

The mission’s visitor offerings include guided tours and new self-guided audio tours in English, Spanish, French, and German. Regularly scheduled free activities, such as a Native American Basket Weavers class, which I attended, and Native American Storytelling. Both are taught by Jacques Nunez, a ninth generation descendant of one of Father Serra’s soldiers (who’s family still owns the soldier’s original 17th century home on Los Rios Street), and award-winning indigenous educator and master storyteller. “It took 200 hours to make one basket,” she explained in her class. No wonder they are so beautifully made, I thought, even if they were used to carry acorns, or abalone, which was traded for obsidian with inland tribes around Palm Springs, she explained.

Outside the mission grounds, it’s time for shopping, dining, cocktails, and more sightseeing. While Ms. Nunez’ family home, the 1794 Rios House, is private, the Dona Montanez Adobe, also built in the late 1700s, is open to the public, displaying early photos and artwork. I found darling home décor and Victorian miniatures inside The Art Garden, a cozy 1910-home-turned gift shop. For dining and camaraderie, I enjoyed the Five Vines Wine Bar and brew pub. Locals recommend the quaint Hummingbird Café for delicious soups. For brunch and lunch, The Ramos House Cafe, circa 1881, serves Southern-style cuisine and huge Bloody Marys on the shaded patio.

To learn more, visit www.missionsjc.com.


Mission San Juan CapistranoswallowsFather SerratraditiontoursclassesNative American culture

Feb 2020


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