Sunday, September 15, 2013

San Juan Capistrano Mission

Along the Mission Trail


When the swallows come back to
Capistrano
That's the day you promised to come
back to me
When you whispered, 'Farewell', in
Capistrano
Twas the day the swallows flew out to sea . . .

by Leon Rene


There is a fairy-tale quality about San Juan Capistrano Mission.  I have been reluctant to pick a favorite among the missions on the Alta California trail, but I think this one is it.  This place is filled with history, folklore, romance, tragedy and sensuous beauty.  Despite the crowds, I enjoyed my day here immensely.  The mission is owned by the Catholic Church and maintained by a non-profit organization which has done an excellent job.  You are given an audio tape to listen to as you wander the grounds, but trust me, more often than not, you will simply turn it off to admire the flowers or the ruins of the Great Stone Church, so reminiscent of ancient Rome.
Founded by Father Lasuen in late 1775, it was the seventh of the 21 missions to be built in California.  Fr. Lasuen and the soldiers, however, were called back to San Diego almost immediately to help with the unrest brewing down there, so its official founding date is November 1, 1776.  For the next 30 years, it continued to grow.  By 1806, one thousand people were living here, taking care of 10,000 heads of cattle.    Richard Dana talks about San Juan Capistrano in Two Years Before the Mast.  The hides were thrown over the cliffs for them to carry back to England on ships.

Earlier in the 19th century, the mission had become famous for the spectacular church which was built on the site--called the Great Stone Church.  It was considered an architectural gem with its seven domes, massive bell tower and high-vaulted ceilings.  It is this church which attracted the swallows.  The walls were high enough to resemble cliffs so they started to build their nests underneath the eaves, the arches and the mission walls.  Thousands upon thousands of them arrived every spring (on or around March 19th),  from South America.  They would fly back in the fall.  They continue to arrive year after year, although their numbers are dwindling.  
A massive earthquake struck the area in 1812 and the Great Stone Church collapsed, killing 40 people who were worshiping inside.  It was a horrific event and shivers ran down my spine as I listened to the tape.  The narrator went on to explain why the church was never rebuilt.  Money, labor and the gradual decline of the whole mission system were reasons, but also, there is an aesthetic appeal to the ruins themselves.  I agree.  They are beautiful and as I mentioned above, they reminded me of ancient ruins I have seen in Europe and the Middle East.  To me, they serve as a metaphor of the Spanish Empire's collapse.  It continues to baffle me when I think of the Spaniard's strategy to colonize the Native Americans.  Was it arrogance, stupidity or blind faith, that made the Spaniards think they could change the lifestyle and beliefs of a people who had lived here for thousands of years?  That the Indians would somehow embrace European culture and want to become model citizens, pay taxes and obey the laws of a king who lived a world away.   The strategy was doomed from the very beginning.

Only the mission bells that hung in the Great Stone Church survived.  They are mounted on a memorial wall and still rung for special occasions and the arrival of the swallows in the spring.


Another beautiful building on the property is a small adobe chapel, which was built in 1778.  It is the only remaining church along the mission trail in which Fr. Junipero Serra held mass.

I confess that part of the appeal of this mission is the charming town of San Juan Capistrano itself.  After your tour, be sure to walk across the street to one of the many restaurants in town.  This is a great place to spend an entire weekend.  The shopping is great and if you love history, there is much more to explore.

 . . . All the mission bells will ring
The chapel choir will sing
The happiness you'll bring
Will live in my memory
When the swallows come back to
Capistrano
That's the day I pray that you'll come
back to me."

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