Mission San Juan Capistrano

“Jewel Of The Missions”

P1020361Mission San Juan Capistrano

The last thing you expect on the last day of July in Southern California is a driving rain storm, but as we drove southward toward San Juan Capistrano thats exactly what we encountered. Tracy and I met Kim and Mary in Dana Point, and after a good French breakfast at the appropriately entitled Bonjour Cafe (getting ready for our big 2012 France trip), we arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano a little before 10 a.m.

P1020375We found out that the $9 entrance fee to the “Jewel of The Missions” also includes an audio guide. Getting to the Mission early is a good idea. When we entered the spacious grounds, it was still relatively empty. By the time we left 90 minutes later, it was getting pretty crowded, and VERY muggy.

P1020367Mission San Juan Capistrano is the seventh of 21 missions. In 1776, Junipero Serra plus a Father, six Spanish Soldiers and eight Native Americans walked into the San Juan Capistrano Valley.

P1020368They had tried to establish this area earlier, but one year before there had been an uprising by Native Americans in San Diego (it seems San Diego has always had problems with Padres even before the baseball team came to town).  We sat next to a koi pond to hear a little of the history, said a quick hello to a friendly fish and then it was time to take our self-guided tour.

P1020366Of course, the logical course of events would have been to start at the very beginning (like Julie Andrews teaching the seven kids how to sing), but logic has never dictated how the four of us travel.

P1020372We were all drawn to a large ruin that was off to our right.

P1020377We arrived at the ruins of the Great Stone Church. These are among the most famous ruins in the United States. Construction started in 1797 and was completed in 1806. It was the biggest structure in Alta California and included seven domes along with a bell tower said to be 70 feet tall. In 1812, during morning mass, a huge earthquake occurred. The bell tower collapsed and forty people were killed.

P1020379                                P1020374   We walked over to the two bells (above right) that were in the bell tower (the two kids ringing the bells were killed in the quake). The bells are now located here where the bell tower used to stand. We then walked over to the Transept. You never really think about ruins in California (well, except for the ones that our crappy state economy cause), so this was very enlightening.


It was at this point we realized that the audio tour doesn’t start with #16 (which was the number for the Great Stone Church that we had just heard all about), but with #2. Our San Diego State (the Harvard of the West) math had once again come back to haunt us. Here are some of the highlights along the way.

One of the first things chores the Spanish missionaries did when they arrived in California was plant Olive Trees. The millstone (below) is similar to the ones that were used to crush olives in order to make olive oil.  Suddenly, we were all hungry again, but being professional travelers, we realized we were on a Mission (literally), so we proceeded on our tour.

P1020389Next stop was the soldiers barracks. There are exhibits here that detail life of the common soldier. No more than eleven soldiers were stationed here at a time.


We also saw a sculpture of a riderless horse, which probably had some important meaning, but i was still craving some olive oil, so we pressed on.

P1020396If there is something to do with wine, you can rest assured the four of us will find it. The California wine industry was born at Mission San Juan Capistrano (at least that’s what the audio tour told me, and who am I to quibble).

      P1020402One of the Fathers brought grape cuttings to San Juan Capistrano to plant. Wine was a big commodity not only for daily drinking, but also for Mass.  The sunken bricked area (above) is an historic wine vat. Some of the wines were terrific, and some were awful (sort of like the 5 cent sale at BevMo).

P1020385Throughout the walk through the Mission San Juan Capistrano are different plants and flowers that just add to the very peaceful surroundings (at least until the tour buses show up).



Then again, there are times that the solitude and serenity can be disrupted by stupid P1020403visitors who put their heads inside cutouts provided by the Mission.  We certainly fit that bill, although it looks like someone cut out my neck.



P1020407After this Maitaitomfoolery, we were summoned by a gentleman to step into a room. After assuring us we weren’t in trouble, he led us to displays containing relics that are not always open to the public.

P1020406This was a special exhibit that will end on September 5. It features “historic artifacts, precious and rare paintings, religious artifacts, documents and more related to the Mission’s history.” No photography is allowed inside the room, so the following pictures are courtesy of the Mission’s website. They included a 20th century Chalice, a Tabernacle from the 18th century that was used in the Serra Chapel to store a Eucharist and a Ciborium that held the Holy Communion bread.

lastsupper                   tabernacle                          chalice

Next stop was the Mission Industrial Center and the Tallow Vats. Tallow was used to make candles, soap, grease and ointments.

shapeimage_11                                      P1020416

Strolling down a corridor on the far side of the Mission, we looked in to an alcove and into the backyard of the two priests who live on the premises. Mary accidentally took a peek through the window of their quarters, but was told by a docent that the priests were used to that and not to worry.

P1020432At the far end of the alcove was a pretty fountain, and then a little further down the corridor we came to the entrance of Father Serra’s Church.

P1020449This is one of the oldest buildings in California. Serra Chapel is the only known church still standing that Junipera Serra celebrated Mass in, the first one being in 1778.

P1020436                                            P1020442

The altar was made in Spain and is said to b more than 300 years old. It is hand-carved with a gold leaf overlay.

P1020440Off to the side when you walk in is a small chapel that’s dedicated to St. Peregrine who is the Patron Saint of Cancer Sufferers.

P1020443                       P1020444

Walking out near the front of the Serra Chapel, we came upon the historic Mission Cemetery. About 2,000 people are buried in this cemetery from 1781 to 1934.

P1020447The final burial here was of Father John O’Sullivan, who for 23 years here directed the restoration at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

P1020446Straight ahead were two large bells that are recast from bells from the Great Stone Church and two small bells from 1804.  For many years, the bells were rung when someone in San Juan Capistrano died. The bells tolled differently for men, women and children. They number of rings would also signify the age of the deceased.

P1020450Final stop on our tour was a dining room, which reminded us that it was almost time for lunch.

P1020453Our Mission San Juan Capistrano tour had ended, and we could attest to why this is called the “Jewel of the Missions.” I told everyone that this was going to be a tough act to follow, but I had made a vow to see all 21, and I still had 19 to go.

P1020456A few more photos, and we were on our way out as the crowds started pouring in.

P1020459Be sure to get here early for the best photo opportunities, and most importantly, the chance to experience Mission San Juan Capistrano in a tranquil environment. Now I finally know why those swallows keep returning!



Mission San Juan Capistrano
26801 Ortega Hwy.
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Hours: Open Daily – 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
Closed at noon Good Friday and Christmas Eve
Telephone: (949) 234-1300
Website: www.missionsjc.com
California Historical Landmark # 200

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