California: Mission San Juan Capistrano Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This is the site of one of two remaining chapels in California used by Father Junípero Serra for religious services. It is also the site of the most catastrophic earthquake-related tragedy to befall the California missions. Today, the mission is famous for the migrating swallows that return each year to nest in the ruins of the Great Stone Church.

Site Office

Mission San Juan Capistrano

31522 Camino Capistrano

P.O. Box 697

San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693

ph.: (949) 248-2000

Web site:

Named for the Italian crusader Saint John of Capistran, San Juan Capistrano has witnessed over two centuries of change, tragedy, and triumph. Established by Fray (Father) Junípero Serra as the seventh in a chain of twenty-one early California Hispanic missions, San Juan Capistrano is popularly known as the “Jewel of the Missions” and “America’s acropolis.” It has been heralded as singularly unique for the Great Stone Church that was once the largest European structure west of the Mississippi River. The church required nine years of construction and was completed in 1806, but it was reduced to rubble within seconds in the earthquake of 1812. In the catastrophe, some forty Acjachemem (ah-ha-SHAY-mem) or Juaneño Indian parishioners were killed, and to this day the church remains a sad but historic reminder of that fateful day in 1812.

In addition to its status as the largest California mission church, San Juan Capistrano is also unique in that it was one of only two stone churches constructed in the California mission chain–the other being San Carlos, or Carmel. In addition to the church, Serra’s Chapel (the chapel of 1777) predates the main church by some twenty-nine years and is the oldest colonial church in all of Northern California. It is also distinguished as one of two surviving chapels used by Serra for religious services.

The Mission’s Founding

Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén established the first mission settlement with the erection of a large cross, the hanging of bells, and the building of temporary structures on October 30, 1775. Soon thereafter, a devastating Indian raid on Mission San Diego de Alcalá forced Lasuén and his companions to abandon the effort and return to San Diego. Formal dedication of the new mission necessarily awaited the return of the Franciscans under the leadership of Serra on November 1, 1776. The site was selected for its resources, arable land, water, and sizable Native American community of Luiseño and Gabrielino peoples. Serra first selected the site of Arroyo de la Quema for settlement. Due to the scarcity of water, the mission was moved to the present site of El Trabuco on October 4, 1778. Though hundreds of villages of Uto-Aztecan-speaking Shoshone tribal peoples inhabited the region, only the Acjachemem or Juaneño-Luiseño and Gabrielinos were documented parishioners according to early mission records. Various estimates indicate that between five thousand and ten thousand Luiseño tribal peoples inhabited this portion of the California coast at first contact. The introduction of European diseases decimated whole villages and hastened the demise of the aboriginal populations of the region. Despite the documented presence of only five Europeans in the early mission period, in April of 1820, the padres baptized 3,731 Indians, married 985, buried 2,369, and counted 1,078 neophytes (converted) Indians among parish residents.

The Great Stone Church

Designed and constructed by architect and stonemason Isidro Aguilar of Culiacán, Mexico, the church was elaborately decorated. It measured 140 feet in length and 40 feet in width. The sanctuary incorporated nine nichos (niches) within the carved and plastered stone altar screen. The nichos once held the elaborately carved and painted santos (saints) hosted by the mission and its church. The church’s bell tower, rising to a height of some 115 feet, was the largest bell tower west of the Mississippi River. Aguilar incorporated some six massive domes over the naves and transepts of the church and a lantern in the ceiling over the sanctuary; three domes survived the earthquake of 1812 but were subsequently demolished with dynamite by misguided historic preservationists in the 1860’s.

Aguilar was summoned to the mission in 1796 for the purpose of building the church. Tragically, on February 21, 1803, Lasuén notes that Aguilar was killed in a mishap during construction; a seventh dome was added after his death to enclose the structure fully. Despite his death, Aguilar’s refined masonry designs found their way into much of the architecture. Particularly notable are the many elaborately carved elements on the walls, doorways, and archways of the monastery. Today, only portions of the sidewalls and the main altar of the church remain intact.

The church was but one part of a mission complex consisting of an adobe chapel, soldiers’ barracks, friars’ quarters, workshops, kitchens, courtyards, an aqueduct system, gardens, a campanario (bell wall), and a cemetery. Industrial features included soap vats, tannery tanks, brick kilns, and olive-milling areas. The architectural footprint of the great compound was drafted without the benefit of survey instruments, and according to legend, the old padres merely paced the area in order to determine its irregular architectural footprint. The builders also constructed an enclosed quadrangle measuring approximately 260 feet on each side. At the center of the quadrangle once stood a defensive tower that measured approximately eighteen to twenty-two feet in height. The east half of the courtyard was dominated by the original mission chapel (Serra’s Chapel). Father John O’Sullivan restored the chapel and its early wall paintings in the 1920’s. To this restoration was added the elaborately carved and gilt reredos (altar screen) from Spain that now dominates the chapel. The three hundred-year-old altar screen was obtained by Archbishop Cantwell of Los Angeles in 1906 and donated to the mission during the restoration.

Prosperity and the Mission’s Decline

The mission prospered in the early days, and its agricultural base included the cultivation of wheat, barley, maize, kidney beans, chickpeas, peas, and beans, and the harvesting and processing of olives, grapes, and other varieties of fruit. Ranching included the raising of livestock, including Spanish cattle, horses, mares and colts, mules, sheep, swine, goats, and chickens. In its census of 1818, the mission reported that it owned 13,200 head of cattle, 15,300 sheep, 363 horses, 300 mares and colts, 200 swine, 195 goats, and 166 mules. Mission industries included carpentry, masonry, metalwork, textile production, tanning, and oil, candle, and soap production.

In the same year, the French-born privateer Hippolyte de Bouchard attacked the California coast on November 20. Bouchard–flying the flag of Buenos Aires and threatening insurgency against Spain–ransacked the mission and looted its wine reserves. Ultimately, the threat of insurgency against Spain spread fear throughout the colony. Resources sorely needed for continued development were then redirected to the defense of the fledgling settlements of Hispanic California. The Spanish crown ultimately lost the fight to Mexican insurgents.

Mexico’s hard-fought independence from Spain heralded a difficult and challenging period for the old mission. In 1821, the Mexican government began redistributing mission holdings to the aboriginal peoples of California. As a result of the Secularization Act of 1833, the Franciscans were divested of all mission properties. In 1841, the Mexican government declared the mission a pueblo de indios (an Indian town as opposed to a Catholic parish) for the purposes of emancipating the native peoples. The experiment proved a failure as land grantees moved in and rapidly expropriated mission Indian (neophyte) lands and reduced the Indians to a state of servitude. As a result, the native peoples abandoned the mission and resulting conflicts reduced the mission to a state of near abandonment and abject neglect. In 1845, just prior to the American conquest of California in 1846, the Mexican government sold the mission to Don Juan Forster for $710. Forster made the mission his home until President Abraham Lincoln deeded the mission back to the Catholic Church in 1865. Several attempts were made to restore the church to its former glory; however, the only early successful effort was Father O’Sullivan’s restoration of Serra’s chapel. In the 1990’s, the mission, through its Mission Preservation Fund, embarked on a twenty million-dollar preservation campaign to restore and protect this significant historical landmark.

The Swallows of Capistrano

Each spring, cliff swallows migrate to Southern California to nest, and the return of the swallows to Capistrano has become the stuff of legend and folklore. Made famous by Leon Rene’s song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” the annual migration draws tourists and bird-watchers from around the world. The six thousand-mile migration of the swallows from Goya, Argentina, in March begets their return to Goya in October of each year.

The mission’s agricultural fields and the availability of water, mud, grasses, and twigs originally drew the swallows; the decline of agricultural cropping in the area has resulted in the flight of the swallows to other areas of the coast and Orange County. Despite this fact, the legend of the swallows is central to the lore of the old mission.

Places to Visit

No visit to the mission would be complete without consideration of the living history program and annual pageant. On the last Saturday of each month, volunteers reenact early life at the mission. Actors don historically accurate costumes ranging from Franciscan attire to Spanish soldiers’ uniforms to American gunslingers’ garb and provide demonstrations and reenactments of each period in the mission’s history. The pageant, on the other hand, features a very popular outdoor living-history play entitled Capistrano that provides a colorful and historically accurate portrayal of life at the mission from 1776 to 1865.

In addition to the mission proper–including Serra’s Chapel, the bell wall, the monastery, and the barracks buildings–the business and residential areas adjacent to the mission are historically significant. The few square blocks of the village core are included in the city’s inventory of historic and cultural resources. The Walking Tour Guide to Historic San Juan Capistrano is available at City Hall, in dispensers attached to downtown street signs, or by calling the city at (714) 493-1171. The area includes buildings from several periods in the community’s history.

Representing the Spanish era, from 1776 to 1820, beyond the mission proper the period structures include the Los Rios Historic District; the Rios, Montanez, Blas Aguilar, and Silvas adobes; the Historic Town Center Archaeological Park; and Stone Field. Each of these sites provides a glimpse into the art and architecture of Spanish colonial construction in adobe and related materials.

From the Mexican-rancho period, from 1821 to 1847, several significant structures may be visited within the village core. These include a number of houses within the “Little Hollywood” portion of the Los Rios District, and the Avila, Garcia, and Yorba Adobes. This last site constitutes the El Adobe Restaurant.

Historic structures in the village core from the statehood era, from 1850 to 1900, include the Capistrano Depot, several structures within “Little Hollywood,” the O’Neill Museum, and the Egan House. In addition to the many historically significant buildings of the statehood era, visitors should visit the New Parish Church. Though modern, the stone church (located behind the mission compound) was intended to reproduce the appearance of the original Great Stone Church of San Juan Capistrano.

For Further Information
  • Bean, Lowell John, and Florence C. Shipek. “Luiseño.” In California. Vol. 8 in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by Robert F. Heizer. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. A detailed overview of the Luiseño Indian peoples.
  • “The Capistrano Pageant.” www.capistranopag
  • “Capistrano: San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce.”
  • Edgar, Kathleen J., and Susan E. Edgar. Mission San Juan Capistrano. New York: Rosen, 2000. An introduction to the mission for elementary school students.
  • Haas, Lisbeth. Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A multiethnic history of San Juan Capistrano that explores Spanish and American social change, rural society, ethnicity, and race.
  • Hallan-Gibson, Pamela. Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano: A Pictorial History. San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: City of San Juan Capistrano, 1990. A photographic overview of the community’s history.
  • Mendoza, Ruben G., and Kenneth D. Halla. “Mission Systems: 18th and 19th Centuries.” In The Encyclopedia of North American History, edited by John C. Super. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 1997. Reviews the mission system and the role of Serra in the founding of the California mission chain.
  • Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K. Building and Builders in Hispanic California, 1769-1850. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994. An excellent resource for the study of Hispanic architecture in early California.
  • Wright, Ralph B., ed. “San Juan Capistrano.” In California Missions. Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Record Printing, 1980. A useful overview of the founding and development of the mission.
Categories: History