Friday, September 7, 2012

San Juan Bautista Mission

Along the Mission Trail

As I continue along the Mission Trail, I am struck by how each mission has its own mood and its own story.  At San Juan Bautista, Indian spirituality blends with European Christianity.  The face and posturing of the St. John the Baptist bronze in front of the mission is uniquely Native American.  The artist, Thomas Marsh, used Native American symbols at the sculpture's base to represent the four evangelists. 

Although the indigenous people suffered the same fate here as at the other missions, dying from disease and forced into servitude, I had the feeling they embraced mission life more than some of the other California tribes.  For one thing, the services at this mission have been uninterrupted ever since its founding in 1797, even during secularization.   For another, the cemetery is filled with Native American graves.  Most importantly, a choir of Native American boys was formed by Fr. Esteban Tapis.  They sang for visitors and the local community.  Their popularity grew so much that San Juan Bautista became known up and down Alta California as "The Mission of Music."  The handwritten choir books are in the museum, as well as an excellent collection of  old bibles and theological books.
In today's world, the San Juan Bautista Mission is famous for being featured in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film Vertigo.  I have to warn you, however, if you come here for that reason you will be very disappointed.  Fire destroyed the steeple years ago and the infamous staircase going up and up and up into a tower never even existed.  It was assembled inside a movie studio in Los Angeles.
I arrived early, the first tourist of the day, and was greeted by a warm, friendly man in the gift shop.

"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Santa Barbara."
"Oh!  Do you know Father (so and so)?  He was my teacher at the monastery.  Great guy."
"Um, no, I'm sorry.  I'm not a parishioner.  But I do love the mission."
"Well, you have to go seek him out.  Great guy."

I had the mission to myself for a full half hour and enjoyed wandering through the museum and the gardens with beautiful Gregorian chants setting the mood.  Once the tour buses arrived, I dodged into the chapel.  Note the little cat door above.  This mission is surrounded by the fertile fields of the San Juan Valley and consequently, mice were a constant problem.  Cat doors were installed so they could roam freely in and out the buildings in search of these unwanted vermin.

The St. John the Baptist statue (in the middle) was painted in 1817 by Thomas Doak, an American sailor who evidently jumped ship in Monterey and ended up here.  Over the decades, the mission kept getting larger and larger and more and more improvements were made.  A kitchen was added.  Then, an entire wing.  Tiles were laid.  Paintings hung.  Roses planted.

 There are three naves in the present day chapel, making it the widest of all the mission churches.   Father Lasuen, the mission's founder, did not know he picked a site right on top of the San Andreas Fault.  Every time an earthquake shook, a wall collapsed and a bigger, stronger one was built.  This is a mission that refuses to give up.  Today, it is still an active parish. 

As I took one final stroll through the beautiful grounds, the gardener tipped his hat and said, "Good morning, Senora."
I smiled.
"Where are you from?"
"Santa Barbara."
"Ah.  Do you know (so and so)?"
I shook my head.  "Sorry," I muttered.  What is it with these people?  But as I walked out into the plaza and headed over to the Castro House, I realized generations of Californians lived right here in this tiny little town of San Juan Bautista.  They are descendents of Native Americans and Spanish soldiers.  Their ancestors are buried at the mission.  They walked El Camino Real with Padre Junipero Serra.  Their sweat, their blood and their souls are mixed with the fertile soil of the area.

  I felt a pang of jealousy.  I'm a mutt and a foreigner.  My blood is filled with nomads and gypsies.   How wonderful it would have been to answer, "Yes, of course I know him.  As a matter of fact, I had dinner just the other night with him.  His daughter is getting married at the Santa Barbara Mission just like his mother and his grandmother.  Imagine that!"  And I do.

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