Mission San Juan Capistrano

Ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano
Ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Kent Wang/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Mission San Juan Capistrano was first founded on October 30, 1775, by Father Fermin Lasuen, abandoned because of rumors of Indian attacks and re-founded November 1, 1776, by Father Junipero Serra. The name Mission San Juan Capistrano honors Saint John of Capistrano, Italy.

Interesting Facts about Mission San Juan Capistrano

  • Mission San Juan Capistrano is the only one to be founded twice
  • The swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano every year around March 19
  • Mission San Juan Capistrano is sometimes called "Jewel of the Missions" because of its beauty
  • The small chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano is the only place still standing in California where Father Serra said mass

Mission San Juan Capistrano Timeline

  • 1775 - First founded Mission San Juan Capistrano
  • 1776 - Re-founded by Father Serra
  • 1797 - New church started
  • 1806 - New church completed
  • 1811 - Most successful year at Mission San Juan Capistrano
  • 1812 - Population of neophytes: 1,361
  • 1812 - Earthquake destroys the church, kills 40
  • 1835 - secularized
  • 1849 - Gold Rush
  • 1850 - California statehood
  • 1863 - Mission San Juan Capistrano returned to the Catholic church

Where Is Mission San Juan Capistrano Located?

Mission San Juan Capistrano is located in southern Orange County, three blocks west of I-5 on Ortega Highway. Exit the freeway and turn west onto Ortega Highway. Mission San Juan Capistrano is straight ahead 2 1/2 blocks.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Ortega Highway at Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano CA
Mission Website and current hours

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History of Mission San Juan Capistrano: 1775 to the Present Day

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Tim Buss/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In 1775, Father Junipero Serra convinced Spanish Captain Rivera that a new mission was needed to break the long journey between San Diego and San Gabriel. On October 30, 1775, Father Fermin Lasuen founded San Juan Capistrano Mission, named for Saint John of Capistrano, Italy.

Just eight days later, word came that Indians attacked Mission San Diego de Alcala and killed one of the fathers. The fathers at San Juan Capistrano immediately returned to San Diego, but first Father Lasuen buried the San Juan Capistrano Mission bells to keep them safe.

The following year, Father Junipero Serra returned to San Juan Capistrano Mission, dug up the bells, and re-founded it on November 1, 1776.

The local Indians were friendly and helped the missionaries construct the buildings and church. In 1777, they built an adobe church. In 1791, the bells were moved from the tree where they had been hanging for 15 years into a new bell tower.

1800-1820 at San Juan Capistrano Mission

San Juan Capistrano Mission grew quickly and soon outgrew its small chapel. In 1797, they started a new building. Completed in 1806, it was the largest mission church in California.

The most successful year at San Juan Capistrano Mission was 1811. That year, they grew 500,000 pounds of wheat and 303,000 pounds of corn. Livestock included 14,000 cattle, 16,000 sheep, and 740 horses.

In December 1812, an earthquake destroyed the church at San Juan Capistrano Mission. It killed 40 natives including two boys who were ringing the bells at the time. They did not rebuild the church.

In 1818, the pirate Bouchard attacked the California coast, saying he fought in the name of a South American province that was rebelling against Spain. Actually, he used the revolution as an excuse to attack the California settlements.

Padre Geronimo Boscano heard that the pirate was coming. He gathered the natives and fled. The Spanish guard tried to hold off the pirates, but they only succeeded in causing greater damage in the end.

1820s - 1830s at San Juan Capistrano Mission

Mexico took over California in 1822. Governor Echeandia arrived in 1824; he said the Indians did not have to follow the commands of the fathers. Discipline began to break down. Then, Governor Figueroa tried to create a pueblo for free Indians at San Juan Capistrano, but it failed

Secularization - 1835

In 1834, Mexico decided to end the mission system and sell the land. The 861 Indians who lived there did not want to stay.

From 1842 to 1845, not even a single priest was left. In 1845, Don Juan Forster, governor Pio Pico's brother-in-law bought San Juan Capistrano Mission. His family lived there for 20 years.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned the land to the Catholic church. However, San Juan Capistrano Mission was not kept up. In 1866, the Catholic church sent Father Jose Mut there. He found everything in ruins. The only building still standing was the chapel, which had a roof because it had been used to store hay. He tried to keep the buildings from getting worse, but he could do very little.

San Juan Capistrano Mission in the 20th Century

In 1910 Father John O'Sullivan came to San Juan Capistrano Mission. When he saw the condition of San Juan Capistrano Mission, he asked to take care of the ruins. Slowly, Father O'Sullivan started to restore it all by himself.

He traded bits of the ruined buildings for new materials, cut roof beams and hired Mexican workers to rebuild the adobe walls. In 1918, he got permission to make it an active church again, which it still is. The building and grounds are partly restored, and there is a museum. 

San Juan Capistrano Mission is famous for its swallows, who fly south every year on October 23 and return on March 19. Legend says the swallows took up residence here to escape an innkeeper who kept destroying their nests. The swallows arrive at San Juan Capistrano Mission in groups and make their nests from mud and saliva, building them under the eaves of the buildings.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Layout, Floor Plan, Buildings, and Grounds


Betsy Malloy

There are no drawings of the whole mission layout, but here's what we know.

When they started working on the church building in 1797, the fathers hired Isidor Aguilar, an expert stonemason from Mexico to supervise the construction. He used architectural features not found in other missions, including a domed ceiling. The church was 180 feet long and 40 feet wide in the shape of a cross with a 120-foot tall bell tower above the entrance. The floor had diamond-shaped tiles and there were small windows high on the walls.

Unfortunately, the church was destroyed in an earthquake in December of 1812. The bell tower also fell. The bell wall which is there today was built to replace it in 1813. 

The fathers never rebuilt the church. What you can see today are pieces of the walls that didn't fall. 

The missionaries moved into the Father Serra Chapel after the earthquake. 

The impressive golden altar at the mission chapel today is not the original. It was a gift from Archbishop Cantwell of Los Angeles who had received it from Spain in 1906. It is so tall that they had to raise the ceiling to fit it inside.

A burial chapel was added to the church in 1821.

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Pictures of Mission San Juan Capistrano

Cattle Brand of Mission San Juan Capistrano

Betsy Malloy Photography

The Mission San Juan Capistrano picture above shows its cattle brand. It was drawn from samples on display at Mission San Francisco Solano and Mission San Antonio.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Great Church in Ruins Picture

Ruins of the Great Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano

The grand church was destroyed in an earthquake and never rebuilt, but many of its walls are still standing. This picture shows what would have the altar area of the big church.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Remnant of a Wall Picture

Old stone wall of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Hanan Isachar / Getty Images

From this picture, you can get an idea of what the inside of the church looked like. On both sides, the walls had arches and insets for statues. The walls are very tall, almost two stories high.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Mission Bells Picture

Mission Bells at San Juan Capistrano
Ines Heinkel / EyeEm / Getty Images

San Juan Capistrano's mission bells have dates on them: 1796 and 1804. The bells are not as old as the mission is, and no one knows exactly where they came from. The originals have been moved indoors and these are copies.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Cemetery Picture

Mission San Juan Capistrano Cemterey

Betsy Malloy Photography

In mission days, burials were simple and little remains to show what the cemetery was like.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Industrial Area Picture

Industrial Area at Mission San Juan Capistrano
©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

This area was used to make tallow, which is animal fat processed so it doesn't spoil. At the mission, they also made soap and candles.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Serra Chapel Interior Picture

Mission San Juan Capistrano
S. Greg Panosian / Getty Images

After the big church was destroyed in an earthquake, the Fathers started using this small chapel as their church. It's named for Father Serra, who helped with the mission's second founding.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Indian House Picture

Indian House at Mission San Juan Capistrano
Marilyn Angel Wynn / Getty Images

This is a model of the houses the Indians used in this part of California before the Spanish arrived. The local band was called Acjachemem, but the Spanish called them Juaneno, for the name of the mission built in their area. The Acjachemem people called the house a Kiitcha. It was a temporary structure that would be rebuilt when it started to deteriorate.

In this photo, you see a Southern California Native American family of grandmother, mother, and children dressed in traditional clothing.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Model Photo

Model of Mission San Juan Capistrano
Courtesy of Grade A Projects

This model shows how the mission was laid out and how it looks when the big church was still standing.