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The Mission San Juan Capistrano is the 7th mission founded in California. It was founded on November 1st, 1776 by Friar Junipero Serra, previously established by Friar Fermin Lasuen on October 30th, 1775, and then abandoned. Named for Saint John of Capistrano, Italy a 14th century theologian and inquisitor.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded twice. In 1775, Father Lasuen set up a cross and dedicated the location. The work went on for eight days until it stopped when word arrived of an attack on the San Diego Mission by natives. The bells were buried and the party returned to San Diego. A year later, Father Serra journeyed to the site and dug up the bells, hung them from a tree and conducted a service on that first day of November. Within a year, the first chapel was built, a very modest structure that is still being used to this day. It is called “Father Serra’s Church” because it is one of only two still standing that he is known to have said Mass. (The other is Mission Dolores)
Almost immediately the mission prospered. The valley was fertile, pleasant and has a moderate climate. The fields soon yielded abundant harvests and the livestock prospered. A patio was built that was surrounded by shops, storehouses and even barracks for soldiers. The patio was irregular in shape due to the padres measuring by pacing off rather than with a surveyor’s instruments.
In 1796 the original chapel had been long outgrown by the population. An expert stonemason arrived from Mexico and he, with many natives, built a cathedral like church in nine years. It was the most magnificent church in all of the California missions, measuring 180 feet long by 40 feet wide. It was mate in the form of a cross and had a vaulted ceiling with seven domes. The main entrance had a belltower standing 120 feet into the sky and could be seen for nearly ten miles. Four bells were mounted between 1796 and 1804. In 1806 the completion was celebrated in a two-day fiesta with all the civil, military and religious dignitaries attending.
In December of 1812, just as the bells were ringing for the next Mass, the floor and walls shook as an earthquake hit. The building collapsed, leaving approximately forty bodies to be dug out. Only the sanctuary was left virtually intact and that is where many of the worshippers fled to and thus survived.
The mission soon recovered but the padres moved back into the original church, rather than rebuild the stone church again. All further construction was limited to utilitarian needs.
In 1833, the natives were emancipated. Unfortunately they were left subject to the control of the civil administrators who took much of their wealth. By 1844 few natives were left. The mission itself suffered the secularization imposed on it. Plundered of tiles and lumber the buildings deteriorated quickly. In the 1860’s attempts at restoring the mission resulted in more being destroyed than being fixed. Finally in the 1890’s, the Landmarks Club saved the Serra Church from disintegration. In the 1920’s, Father St. John O’Sullivan started a major restoration, laying out gardens and repairing the buildings. In modern times, Monsignor Paul M. Martin started another preservation project after the 1987 Whittier earthquake.
Mission San Juan Capistrano also is subject of stories, poetry and songs. The swallows of Capistrano (Las Golondrinas) are the best known feature. As per the legends, they arrive on St. Joseph’s Day each spring to breed. Today, the ruins of the stone church still stand and the remnants of the stonework stand testament to the work that was performed.
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