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Return of the Swallows festivities coming to Mission San Juan Capistrano in March

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano

If one mission is to be visited, of all of California’s abundance and rich history of missions, it has to be the “Jewel of the Missions” in San Juan Capistrano. The only mission to be built in Orange County is a beautiful site set on ten acres in the middle of town. It is also a very active center for festivals, special and educational events as well as the famous Return of the Capistrano Swallows.

California missions were founded and built by the Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order, between 1769 and 1823, to spread the Christian faith to the local Native Americans. The building of these missions was one of the first steps in colonizing the Pacific coast. By the end of this period, there were 21 established missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco and situated approximately 30 miles apart or about a day’s travel between each.  In those days, the area was called Alta California and was divided into four military precincts, or Presidios. The military provided support and protection for the missions and evidence of their presence is displayed in the mission at San Juan Capistrano.

The missions were mainly self-sustaining communities. The local Native Americans who lived in the mission or the surrounding areas provided the labor under the direction of the friars with farming, wine making, animal husbandry and pottery making, to name a few. Schooling, religious instruction, shelter and protection were provided to the mission residents. The Mission San Juan Capistrano also had a furnace for iron making, the first in California, which produced a variety of items from nails to cannonballs and was an income producing segment. The many implements used and the variety of everyday jobs performed are presented at the mission to educate visitors what life was like during that era.

Father Junipero Serra was the Franciscan friar who established Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776 as well as six others along the California coast. The chapel on site was built in that first year and is still used for services today. Considered the oldest church in California, it became known as Father Serra’s church. Behind the altar, is a “retablo”, or altarpiece, carved by skilled Spanish craftsmen over 200 years ago. It had been sent to the Archdiocese in Los Angeles from Spain in 1906. In 1924, Father O’Sullivan, a priest that dedicated many years to the restoration of the mission, requested that the retablo be installed in Father Serra’s old church. The retablo was so tall that the roof of the Chapel had to be raised. It is covered with intricate gold leaf and its warm glow fills the small chapel.

In 1796, plans were made to build a large church of stone at the mission and work started on what was considered the most magnificent church in California. Tragically it only stood for six years when in 1812 an earthquake destroyed most of the building during a mass. Some forty worshipers were killed that day. The ghostly face of a young girl holding a candle is said to be seen in one of the highest windows of the ruined church. Today, the visitor can view the high walls left standing and can imagine the heights of the inside nave and clerestory windows that are now all open to the sky.

What has settled in the ruins of the altar are many nests of the Capistrano swallows that are said to migrate each year from Goya, Argentina. San Juan Capistrano is the spring and summer home of the swallows before returning to Goya in October. This migration pattern was noticed centuries ago by the friars at the mission. Each year, San Juan Capistrano celebrates the return of the Swallows in March. This year, the festival will be celebrated on March 19 and 20, 2010 and is an excellent time to visit the mission with numerous activities, music, demonstrations and community participation as well provide an opportunity to explore the grounds.

During the week is certainly another wonderful time to visit and walk around the many buildings and gardens in a more quiet setting. Enjoy the beautiful fountains and flowers as well as envision a lively, busy, working community that the Mission San Juan Capistrano once was, hundreds of years ago!

Mission San Juan Capistrano
26801 Ortega Hwy
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

(949) 234-1300
Open Daily: 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Closed at noon Good Friday and Christmas Eve
Adults: $9 (includes free audio tour)
Seniors: $8 (includes free audio tour)
Children (4 to 11 years): $5
Children under 3 years: Free

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  • Sara H. 5 years ago

    I toured this mission while visiting California a couple of years ago. It is a beautiful and fascinating site.

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