San Juan Capistrano

The Mission

The ruins of the Mission of San Juan Capistrano are just across the Ortega Highway from Lake Elsinore.

The Spanish mission was founded by Franciscan friars when Las Californias was a colonial territory of Spain from 1768-1804. It was named for San Giovanni, a Catholic saint and priest from the town of Capestrano in the Province of Abruzzo, Italy. (

John was born in 1386. His father died when he was quite young and his mother valued his good education. He studied law in Perugia and later was appointed governor. His high ethical standards and commitment to justice earned him a renowned reputation. While mediating between 2 warring cities, however, he was thrown in jail where he received God’s call and became a Franciscan in 1416. He studied theology under St. Bernardine of Siena and later helped him reform the Franciscan order which was growing corrupt. John earned the respect of secular leaders across Europe who often sought his counsel. At 70+ years, he planned, led, and executed a crusade to defend Europe from Turkish invaders, earning him the nickname, the soldier saint. He died from the plague in 1456. His feast day is commemorated on October 23rd, the birthday of my son, Andy. (

According to, the Mission’s Museum website, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, a Spanish missionary and Franciscan padre, came to California in 1761. Further details from explain that he and Father Gregorio Amurrio were sent to what is now Mission San Juan Capistrano to say Mass and establish a mission.

After constructing an arbor, hanging 2 bronze bells from a branch of a nearby tree, and erecting a cross, Father Lasuen consecrated the grounds on October 30, 1775.  Within a few weeks, however, the founding padres and soldiers were summoned back to San Diego where a mission had been attacked and a missionary murdered. But before leaving, the 2 founding missionaries buried the original bronze bells. (

The historical marker on the premises preserves the Founding Document.

A year later, Father Junipero Serra returned to re-found Mission San Juan Capistrano and excavated the buried bells which were permanently mounted in 1791. (

A chapel, later named after him, was built in 1782.

Not only did Father Serra celebrate Mass here, but it is the oldest building in California which is still used today as a mission parish. (

Here is a closer view of the elaborate pulpit:

This is the side altar dedicated to St. Joseph:

Along both sides of the walls are 14  paintings of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, known as the Stations of the Cross. The day we visit is Good Friday and one couple is seen here stopping at each station to say selected prayers and reflect upon the final sufferings of Christ.

The goal of the Mission was to expand Spain’s territories while spreading Christianity to the Native peoples of California. Led by Franciscan friars (padres, priests) and Spanish soldiers, the colonial outpost would become a center for learning and training for the  Acjachemen, the indigenous peoples living here.

Below is a picture of a Native American communal grinding stone found on the premises.

The indented bowl shapes held the grains that were pounded down by pestle-like tools. (Can’t you just imagine me in a past-life with several other women gathering under this shady spot to work and gossip?)

After converting to Christianity, the Native peoples would be called Juanenos. They received new names after being baptized,  learned to speak a new language, adjusted to new social customs, were taught new skills, and lived under a new set of rules, one of which was to not leave the grounds without permission. (

Founding a mission was no easy task.  The Spanish government and Catholic Church provided funding for the first 5 years, after which the mission was expected to be fully self- reliant. So, besides their theological role, the Padres had to master new job titles, such as: teachers, architects, farmers, ranchers, supervisors, accountants, musicians, builders, and medics. (plaque on site)

Below are some museum models of the Padres’ rooms:

Note the shadow on top of the wall just right of center. The most beautifully simple and rustic crucifix is there…

When Spain granted permission for the founding of a new mission, a group of 4-6 soldiers, known as an escolta, was assigned to protect the mission and its Padres. The soldiers lived in a cuartel separate from the main mission compound. (

By 1794 over 70 adobe structures were built to accommodate the growing population of the Mission. Some still stand today in the oldest residential neighborhood of California. (

In 1806 over 1,000 people were living at the Mission and raising over 10,000 head of cattle. That same year “The Great Stone Church” was completed.  Unfortunately this magnificent church collapsed during an earthquake in December of 1812.(

Within a year a brick bell wall was built, with salvaged bells from the wreckage, between the remains of the stone church and the Mission’s first chapel. ( Today this courtyard is known as the Sacred Garden.

I didn’t mean to ramble on so. There is so much history here to digest and reflect upon, such as, were the indigenous peoples converts or slaves? But I will leave these thoughts for a later time…

And I haven’t even shared the pictures of the beautiful blooming grounds yet or the historic downtown district! Stay tuned for San Juan Capistrano, Part  2.

3 thoughts on “San Juan Capistrano

    • It really is! We have driven through San Juan Capistrano so many times and have never taken the time to stop and visit. While Jeff was waiting for me to deplane at John Wayne Airport, from my trip to Ohio for Oliver’s birthday, he picked up a brochure for the Mission. Inside was a coupon for $2 off. He also watched a Huell Howser episode on Mission San Juan Capistrano while I was gone. (If you check out my post on Mount Rubidoux, you’ll find out about Huell Howser and his show, California’s Gold.) So, we finally stopped to visit and we are so glad we did. I didn’t even mention the swallows that return here each March 19th, on the feast of Saint Joseph!


  1. Pingback: Mount Rubidoux | wandering gypsy Laurel

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