In 1775, Father Junipero Serra convinced Spanish Captain Rivera that a new mission was needed to interrupt 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 San Diego de Alcala was under attack and Indians had killed one of the fathers. The fathers 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, the Juaneno, were friendly and helped build the buildings and church. In 1777, an adobe church was built. In 1791, a bell tower was completed and the bells were moved from the tree where they had been hanging for 15 years.
1800-1820 at San Juan Capistrano Mission
San Juan Capistrano Mission grew quickly and soon outgrew its small chapel. In 1797, a building that was to be the largest church in California was started. It was finished in 1806, and continued to grow. 1811 was the most successful year at San Juan Capistrano Mission, when it grew 500,000 pounds of wheat, 303,000 pounds of corn and had 14,000 cattle, 16,000 sheep and 740 horses.
In December, 1812 an earthquake destroyed the church at San Juan Capistrano Mission, killing 40 natives including two boys who were ringing the bells at the time. The church was not rebuilt.
In 1818, the pirate Bouchard attacked the California coast, supposedly in the name of a South American province that was rebelling against Spain. In truth, he used the revolution as an excuse to attack the California settlements. Padre Geronimo Boscano was warned of the pirate's approach and he gathered up 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
When Mexican Governor Echeandia arrived in 1824, he issued a statement to the Indians that they did not have to follow the commands of the fathers. Discipline began to break down. Then, when Governor Figueroa created a pueblo for free Indians here, activity all but ended.
Secularization - 1835
In 1834, after Mexico won its independence from Spain, they decided to end the mission system and sell the land. There were 861 Indians living there at the time, but they did not want to stay. From 1842 to 1845, there was not even a priest left. In 1845 San Juan Capistrano Mission was sold to Don Juan Forster, governor Pio Pico's brother-in-law. The Forster family lived there for 20 years.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned the land to the Catholic church. San Juan Capistrano Mission was not kept up and in 1866, when Father Jose Mut was sent there, he found it in ruins. The only building still standing was the chapel, which still had its roof because it had been used to store hay. Father Mut tried to keep the buildings from deteriorating further, 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. Father O'Sullivan was suffering from tuberculosis and he came to California hoping the weather would help him recover. When he saw the condition of San Juan Capistrano Mission, he asked to be put in charge 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. As he worked on the church, he also recovered from his tuberculosis. Finally, 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. Today, they have begun a 10-year program to stabilize and preserve it into the new century.
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.