The Mission at San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776 by St. Junipero Serra; it was the 7th of 9 missions established by the saint and would become part of a chain of 21 California missions to be built. The purpose of these missions were to spread the Catholic faith in the territory called New Spain; they were a mixture of monasteries, educational centers, and self-sufficient haciendas. The oldest building still standing is the Serra Chapel, which dates from the 1780s, it is the only chapel in California where it is known that St. Junipero celebrated Mass.
The mission continued to grow and by 1806, it had a population of over a 1,000 people and they had built a large stone church because the Serra Chapel could no longer accommodate the crowds. However, by 1812 the mission was starting to decline: there was an earthquake that destroyed the stone church and the wars between now-Mexico and Spain. After the Mexican government won its independence it dissolved the mission system and sold off the land of San Juan Capistrano.
Once California was sold to the United States and became a state in 1850, the archdiocese applied to reinstate the mission. People were moving out west for the Gold Rush and began fixing up the old buildings. One of the leaders of the restoration work was Father St. John O’Sullivan, pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1910-1933.
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Every year of St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th) the town of San Juan Capistrano celebrates the returning of the swallows to nest at the mission. The legend goes that Father John O’Sullivan saw a shopkeeper destroying swallow nests and that he said he would give the birds refuge in the mission buildings. Then the next morning he saw the swallows nesting outside the Serra Chapel. In recent years there has been a lot of environmental work to encourage the swallows to continue to come in an increasingly urban environment. The swallow has become the symbol of San Juan Capistrano.
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For more information visit their website at https://www.missionsjc.com