Mission San Juan Capistrano holds several distinctions among California's 21 missions. First, it's the only chapel where Father Serra conducted mass that still stands. Second, the mission is considered to be the most picturesque of all the missions. Third, the mission is known for the swallows that return there to nest every April.
In 1775, Father Junipero Serra decided a new mission was needed between Missions San Gabriel and San Diego. He sent Father Fermin Lasuen to found Mission San Juan Capistrano, but just days after establishing the mission, Father Lasuen and his fellow priests returned to San Diego because that mission was under attack by the natives.
One year later on November 1, 1776, Father Junipero Serra founded the San Juan Capistrano Mission in what is now southern Orange County. It was the seventh mission in Alta California. Local natives were friendly and helped construct the mission's buildings and church. The mission grew quickly and soon needed a new chapel. In 1787, the Great Stone Church was started. It would take nine years to complete the construction and stand as the only chapel building not constructed of adobe in the Alta California mission system.
In 1811, the mission recorded growing 500,000 pounds of wheat, 303,000 pounds of corn and having 14,000 cattle, 16,000 sheep and 740 horses. In 1812, an earthquake destroyed the church and killed 40 natives. The church wasn't rebuilt. Instead, the fathers returned services to the Father Serra Chapel, which some historians think is the oldest building standing in California and the only one where Father Serra, founder of the California mission system held mass. In 1814, a small infirmary was constructed at the mission. Traditional native methods were used to heal the sick and injured.
The San Juan Capistrano California mission was sacked by pirates in 1818. French pirate Hipolito Bouchard sailed within sight of the mission on December 14 and demanded provisions from the mission. The garrison of Spanish soldiers that approached Bouchard refused his request for supplies and threatened force. In response, the pirate sent 150 men to loot the mission. The guards were overwhelmed, and the pirates ransacked the warehouse and damaged buildings. Nowadays, an annual celebration is held to commemorate the event.
In 1834, when the Mexican government declared the natives free and secularized the missions, there were some 850 natives living at San Juan Capistrano. By 1842, all the natives and the fathers were gone. The mission fell into ruin and many of the buildings were plundered by natives for construction materials. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln returned the mission to the Roman Catholic Church. From then until the mid-1900s, the mission had a handful of fathers living there, but it was never returned to its status of the early 19th century. Today, preservation efforts are ongoing, and a $7.5 million series of seismic retrofits were made in 2004.
The Swallows of Capistrano
The San Juan Capistrano Mission has long received international fascination because of the American Cliff Swallows that live on the grounds. The birds fly south to Argentina every year on October 23 and return to nest at the mission on approximately March 19. While fewer numbers of birds return each year, the swallows have long served as the mission's signature icon and attract visitors from around the world.