Known as Jewel of the Missions, San Juan Capistrano is the seventh of twenty-one missions established in Alta California. San Juan Capistrano, like the other California missions, was established to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain, and to spread Christianity to the indigenous natives of the area.
Named after the 15th century warrior priest, the mission’s history dates back to 1775, when Father Ferman Francisco de Lasuen founded the mission. The first structure was built with the help of the indigenous natives; however, its location was short-lived.
Within two weeks, word arrived at the mission that San Diego’s mission was under attack. For preservation and safekeeping, the mission bells were concealed in the earth, and everyone, including the padres, left for San Diego. Upon their return to San Juan Capistrano, they found the cross still standing and unearthed the bells. However, on All Saint’s Day in 1776, Father Junipero Serra led a group to establish a second location, because the first site lacked water.
The Spanish did not bring people over from Spain to form colonies like the British. The Spanish had faith that they could transform the Native people into citizens. Franciscan padres and Spanish soldiers led the missions, and the outpost served as a center of training and learning for the local people.
The Spanish government and Catholic Church’s notion was to convert the people to Christianity, and then train them in Spanish or European lifestyle, with the hope that they would settle down in towns and pay taxes. However, the task was not easy.
Initially, Native Americans came to the mission out of curiosity about the Spanish culture and ideas. As they interacted with the Spanish, the Native Americans came to realize the mission’s intentions – conversion to Christianity and mission participation.
Those who accepted were baptized and received a Christian name. Converts agreed to follow any rules and lifestyle changes in the name of Christianity. One of the conditions on joining the mission was that the converts could not leave the grounds without permission.
For the next 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano flourished, in not only population and cattle, but also structurally. Constructed from adobe bricks with a clay-tiled roof, the mission was constructed in a traditional quadrangle configuration with storage rooms, small stores, living and dining facilities for the padres and residences for the Native Americans, known today as the Juaneños (Band of Mission Indians). On the south side of the quadrangle, there was a section expressly built for the soldiers with living quarters, a jail and “powder magazine.”
In 1796, they began work on the Great Stone Church. The stones for the church were brought from a nearby quarry, and after nine years, it was completed. The cathedral was spectacular, five stories in height with seven stone cupolas and a bell tower.
A dreadful earthquake shook most of Southern California in 1812. The bell tower came crashing down into the cathedral, and when the tremors ceased, forty persons had died. The Great Stone Church lay in ruins.
After the earthquake, the mission began to decline. Besides the destruction of the church, other causes included an increasing mortality rate due to disease, and the Spanish government’s failure to adequately “protect and supply” the outpost with basic items.
When Alta California became a Mexican territory, the mission continued its decline, and by 1834, the land holdings were divided and sold to prominent California families. The mission itself was sold at auction and became a private ranch to the Forster family, the Governor’s brother-in-law.
In 1865, before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed documents returning the mission compound to the Catholic Church. The buildings were in great disrepair, but artists and local individuals took interest in the mission, and campaigned for its restoration. From 1910 through the 40s, there was a lot of preservation work done. Then, in the 1980s, a new parish church was constructed, keeping in line with the original Great Stone Church.
The mission through the ages has been a home to many, and within its walls are countless historical accounts, stories and legends. Scheduled events such as the Return of the Swallows celebration take place throughout the year.
With cultural and religious importance, Mission San Juan Capistrano also has museums with permanent and temporary exhibits that include historical and religious artifacts, documents pertaining to the mission, paintings, vestments, and Native American interpretive room with artifacts and music.
By: Dawn Levesque
The San Juan Capistrano Historical Society