Mission San Juan Capistrano, named for St. John of Capistrano, Italy, a theologian of the 14th century, is the seventh mission founded November 1, 1776, the Feast of All Saints, by Fr. Junipero Serra. Previously established by Fr. Fermin Lasuen on October 30, 1775, it was abandoned because of Indian unrest at Mission San Diego. The Great Stone Church began construction in 1796; was completed in 1806;and was destroyed by an earthquake 1812. The Mission was secularized 1833, sold in 1845, and was returned to the Church in 1865.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded twice; the first attempt was In October of 1775, when Father Lasuen left San Diego with eleven soldiers to establish a mission roughly halfway between Mission San Diego and Mission San Gabriel. On October 30, 1775, a large cross was set up and Fr. Lasuen took formal possession of the land in the name of the crown and dedicated the ground. A number of Indians watched and helped to haul timber for the building of a temporary chapel and dwellings. The work went on for eight days, but came to a halt when word reached the Spaniards that Mission San Diego had suffered an Indian attack. The bells were hastily buried and the small party hurried south to take shelter in the Mission at San Diego.
After a year's delay, an expedition led by Father Junipero Serra, arrived at the same site on October 31, 1776, with two padres and an escort of soldiers. The following day, November 1, 1776, the mission was officially dedicated.
Once established, the mission prospered almost from the start. Between the founding and 1797, a number of adobe buildings were erected. In 1777, the first little church was built, a modest structure that is still in use today. Considered the oldest church in California, it is called "Serra Chapel" because it is the only building still standing where Fr. Serra had celebrated Mass.
The swallows migrate annually to Goya, Argentina in October, and return to their spring and summer home in San Juan Capistrano each March. The Swallows celebration began centuries ago when Mission padres observed that the birds return roughly coincided with St. Joseph's Day on the church calendar, March 19. The celebration has achieved international prominence since then.
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In his book, Capistrano Nights, Father St. John O'Sullivan, Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano 1910-33, relates how the swallows first came to call the Mission home. One day, while walking through town, Fr. O'Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand, knocking down the conically shaped mud swallow nests that were under the eaves of his shop. The birds were darting back and forth through the air squealing over the destruction of their homes.
"What in the world are you doing?" Fr. O'Sullivan asked.
"Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!" the shopkeeper responded.
"But where can they go?"
"I don't know and I don't care," he replied, slashing away with his pole. "But they've no business here, destroying my property"
Fr. O'Sullivan then said, "Come on swallows, I'll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There's room enough there for all."
The very next morning, the padre discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside the newly restored sacristy of Father Serra's Church. Another favorite spot was the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which was once lined with hundreds of swallows' nests.
Fr. O'Sullivan noticed that the small birds migrated south in the autumn and returned to the Mission in spring on St. Joseph's Day, March 19th. Upon their arrival, the swallows immediately went to work patching up their old nests, building new ones, and disputing possession of others with 'vagrant sparrow families' as they may have taken up illegal quarter there during the swallows' absence.
With a great flutter of wings, the swallows would peck at the soil, fly with a bit of it to the old mission lagoon to the northeast of the buildings. Using the water they made a paste of the earth in their beaks, amid more fluttering of wings at the pond's edge. They then flew to the eaves of the Mission to deliver their loads of mud plaster for the walls of their inverted houses, and, as O'Sullivan observed, "receive the noisy congratulations of their mates".
One of Fr. O' Sullivan's companions at the Mission, José de Gracia Cruz, known as Acú, told Fr. O'Sullivan many stories and legends of the Mission. Acú, a descendent of the Juaneño Indians, was the Mission's bell ringer until his death in 1924, and spent long hours under the Mission's famed pepper tree making various items from leather
One of Acú's most colorful tales was that of the swallows (or las golondrinas as he called them). Acú believed that the swallows flew over the Atlantic Ocean to Jerusalem each winter. In their beaks they carried little twigs, on which they could rest on water when tired.
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