San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano Key Facts

San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776,   This mission, designated the “Jewel of the Missions,” contains picturesque ruins, a distinctive bell wall,  and beautifully landscaped grounds. Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular destination known for its many special events, particularly “The Return of the Swallows.”  

General Information

San Juan Capistrano

Founded:
November 1, 1776
Current Status:
The mission church (called the Serra Chapel) is part of the Parish properly referred to as the Mission San Juan Capistrano Basilica
Summary:
San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776,   This mission, designated the “Jewel of the Missions,” contains picturesque ruins, a distinctive bell wall,  and beautifully landscaped grounds. Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular destination known for its many special events, particularly “The Return of the Swallows.”  

Key Facts About This Mission

Special Designation

The Jewel of the Missions

Named For

St. John of Capistrano, a 14th-century theologian

Founding Father President

Fr. Junipero Portrait Fr. Junípero Serra 

Founding Missionaries

Frs. Pablo Mugártegui and Gregorio Amurrío

Mission Site

Located within sight of the ocean in the town of San Juan Capistrano, which developed around the mission.

Layout

Traditional quadrangle

Water Source

•    Three streams, the Trabuco, Horno, and San Juan, converged at the mission.

Population

This mission grew steadily, exceeding 1000 neophytes by 1797. The highest recorded population was 1,361, in 1812. Even in 1833, when the mission was secularized, 861 neophytes were still living at San Juan Capistrano.

Livestock

Cattle Brand display on wall In 1783 (the first year for which we have detailed records) the mission had 430 cattle, 305 sheep, 830 goats, 40 pigs, 32 horses, and 1 mule, a total of 1,648 animals. In 1819 (the peak year) the mission had over 31,000 animals, including 14,00 cattle and 16,000 sheep. 

Agricultural Output

Agricultural production was significant. Over the years 1783 - 1831 San Juan Capistrano harvested 234,879 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos (chickpeas) and habas (broad beans).

Mission Church

Serra Church In 1778, two years after the mission was moved to the present site, a small adobe chapel was built, and soon replaced by the Serra Chapel in 1782. This is the only remaining church in which Fr. Serra held mass. 

Behre PaintingIn order to accommodate the mission's growing population, the Great Stone Church was constructed between 1797 - 1806. This cathedral-like building was 180 feet long by 40 feet wide and had a high-vaulted ceiling surmounted by seven domes fronted by a 120-foot tall bell tower. In December 1812 a massive earthquake destroyed the Great Stone Church, killing 40 neophytes.

Mission Bells

Bell Wall 1936The four bells that hung in the Great Stone Church survived the earthquake and were hung in a bell wall, one of the mission's most picturesque features. 

The two largest bells were cast in 1796, the others in 1804. Recently the two largest bells were recast, and the originals rehung in the ruins of the Great Stone Church.

Mission Art

The reredos and altar of Serra's Chapel are made of cherry wood and covered with gold leaf. They originated in Barcelona, Spain and are about three hundred years old. The altar is adorned with fifty-two angels faces, one for every Sunday of the year.

Special Attractions

San Juan Capistrano, with its beautifully landscaped grounds and with the ruins of the Great Stone Church and adjacent bell wall, is one of the most picturesque sites in California.

This mission goes out of its way to celebrate it’s long, colorful history.

Significant Events

El Pirata Bouchard Hippolyte de Bouchard, an Argentine privateer, raided the coast of California in 1818. After stopping at Rancho El Fugio, he sailed into Santa  Barbara on Dec. 14, 1818. This mural is located in the Santa Barbara Courthouse. 

Secularized

1833

Year Returned to Catholic Church

1865 in a decree signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Indians Joining Mission

The Takic speaking people of the Acjachemen villages. Neophytes associated with San Juan Capistrano have been called Juaneño since the Spanish occupation.

Interesting Facts

Swallows Poster Cliff Swallows (Las Golondrínas) return to the mission from their wintering grounds 2000 miles away on or about each March 19 (St. Joseph's Day), an event that is celebrated at the mission each year. The return of the swallows is featured in Leon Rene’s famous song "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." 

San Juan Capistrano was actually founded twice. Construction had begun in 1775 when news of the Indian attack on the San Diego mission forced the padres to stop construction and delay the founding until late 1776.

Richard Dana described the brisk trade in hides and tallow at the San Juan Capistrano in his coming-of-age book Two Years Before the Mast.

Additional Information
  • McGinty, A. (2001). Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. (PowerKids Press series on the Missions of California)
  • Sugranes, E. (1921). The History of Mission San Gabriel.
  • Engelhardt, Z. (1927). San Gabriel, and the Beginnings of Los Angeles. (The definitive early history of the “The Pride of the Missions”).

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