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Discover Mission San Juan Capistrano, “the Jewel of the Mission,” gazing at five historic and cultural gems: Chapel Cerra, the Grand Stone Church, the legend of the swallows, the Spanish heritage and winemaking tradition. Let this visit sparkle!
A pinch of history
- Originally founded on October 30, 1775, by Father Lausen, the mission was abandoned eight days after due to the uprising at Mission San Diego de Alcala.
- Padre Junipero Serra re-established the mission on November 1, 1776.
- The “Jewel of the Missions” was the 7 out of 9 missions established by Padre Serra.
- It was named after Saint Giovanni da Capestrano (John of Capistrano, 1386-1456), a Franciscan priest.
- The historic bells ring seven times each day at 9:00 am in remembrance of his founder.
The oldest chapel in California, named after its founder, is the “Jewel of the Jewel.” Masses are celebrated since its construction in 1782. It’s renowned as the only remaining standing church where Padre Serra led Mass (1783).
The current centerpiece of the chapel is a retablo installed during the renovation of the mission in 1922. This 330 years old altarpiece from Spain is made of carved wood and covered with gold leaf. Transported via 10 boxes, it took 18 months to assemble the 396 pieces and realized that it was too high to fit (18.5 feet wide by 22.5 feet tall)!! Hence, to accommodate it, the chapel roof was raised.
Great Stone Church
As the mission grew, Chapel Serra was too small to welcome pilgrims. The construction of the Great Stone Church started in 1797 and lasted nine years. It was the most magnificent and stone-built churches of all the missions. Indeed, the other churches were made from adobe.
Tragically, most of the monument was destroyed in 1912 by an earthquake killing 40 people. It was never rebuilt.
If you grew up in Southern California, you probably visited the mission during a school field trip. The mission is an open museum emphasizing on the Spanish period (1776-1821) of California’s history. Discover the way of life of the Acjachemen (Native American), the “Juaneños” (baptized Acjachemen people), priests and soldiers exploring the living quarters, kitchens, soldiers’ barracks and much more.
Did you know?
French native (born in St Tropez) Hippolyte de Bouchard (1783–1843) attacked several missions in Alta California: Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Capistrano. He was entitled with a legal corsair patent, a “letter of marque” from Argentina to prey on Spain territories. In 1818, the sailor raided on Mission San Juan Capistrano with 140 men for provisions. The mission was already evacuated and assailants damaged several structures.
According to the legend, Father O’Sullivan welcomed swallows to the mission in the early 1930s: “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.” Since then, in March, swallows return to the mission migrating 6,000 miles from Argentina. The location of the mission, near rivers, most certainly attracted the birds to nest and raise their young.
Today, the return of the swallows is celebrated on St Joseph Day, March 19th. Unfortunately, due to urbanization and restoration, the migration declined over the past few years.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was the 1st to produce wine in 1782. Following difficulties to import wine from Mexico, Father Serra suggested to each mission to cultivate grapes. The wine was essential to celebrate masses and communion but also for table use. Most likely, European varieties were planted to produce white and red wine.
Which California mission is your favorite? Leave a comment to join the discussion.
- Location: 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675.
- Hours: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).
- Cost: $10 per adult
- Duration: I spent 3 hours to discover it, and picnic in the garden.
- Parking: Free public parking
- Metrolink: the train station is located two blocks from the mission (check Amtrak schedule).
- More information available at https://www.missionsjc.com/