Mission San Juan Capistrano (and its swallows) has been immortalized in song and film. It’s among the first California missions to capture the public imagination and has long been a popular tourist attraction.
It’s easy to see why.
On entering the gate, one steps into a beautiful plaza surrounded on all sides by graceful arches. A large fountain murmurs in the center of a colorful garden. Gently sloping roofs of red tile rest below a smattering of deep green palm trees provide a perfect contrast to blue skies.
Off to the side another large fountain provides a dreamy foreground for the un-restored ruins of what was once a massive stone church.
The ruins of the church only hint at how beautiful and elaborate it once must have been during its six years in use.
Alongside the ruined church, the wall that holds the mission bells also forms the backdrop for the priests’ garden.
This garden leads to the Serra Chapel, probably the oldest surviving building on the site and the only extant building in California where Father Serra (now Saint Serra) once held mass.
(Very little of the interior is original, as the chapel was abandoned after the roof collapsed in the 1890s and used for grain storage for many years before being modified during “restoration” to accommodate a larger altar and allow natural light to enter.)
The chapel provides access back into the quadrangle and its gardens. The buildings surrounding the quadrangle once held rooms for priests and novices, workshops, a kitchen, and storage areas – everything needed for a self-sufficient community to prosper. Today they house museum exhibits, visitor services, and offices. Nonetheless, the shaded walkways retain the feel of times gone by.
As beautiful and historic as San Juan Capistrano is, it feels a bit like a movie set; everything is just a little too pretty and too perfect. It seems an idealized setting for what was in reality a very difficult way of life.
Although it was initially among the largest and most successful missions in California, San Juan Capistrano was already struggling to survive when an 1812 earthquake brought down much of that enormous new church. The situation worsened in the following years, as the mission continued to decline before being sold to private landowners with little incentive to maintain it beyond what was needed for their personal use. Much of the mission was left to crumble. And, while efforts were made to stabilize and restore the mission once it was returned to the Catholic Church in 1865, it remained largely in ruins for decades.However, the ruined mission’s lonely arches, crumbling adobe, and collapsed church always attracted attention. As the mission period became an increasingly popular piece of California mythology, San Juan Capistrano’s picturesque ruins became a popular tourist stop.
The turning point for the mission came in 1910 with the arrival of Father O’Sullivan, the Landmarks Club decision to restore the mission (previous work simply preserved the ruins from further decay), and the mission’s role in the Mary Pickford film The Two Brothers. Father O’Sullivan’s role was critical, as he encouraged artists to visit the mission, enthusiastically supported restoration of the mission, and sought to bring the same bright and airy Impressionistic aesthetic then in vogue in vogue with California artists to his restoration of the mission and its gardens.
The result is as much a work of art as a historic site, but it certainly is beautiful.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is open to the public most days and mass is regularly held in the Serra Chapel. The site is owned by the Catholic Church, but operated by a private non-profit. An admission fee is required to visit the site.