And who can look about the beautiful ruin and not be impressed that
his purpose is a worthy one? For here, beyond question, was one of
the largest establishments and the finest church of all the twenty-one
missions of California. Our pictures must be the best description of
the ruin-but they can give little idea of the impressive ensemble. The
inner court was surrounded by arched cloisters, part of which still
remain, though time-stained to a mellow brown and covered with vines
and roses. A tiny garden now relieves the wide waste of the ancient
enclosure, fragments of whose walls are still to be seen. The original
tiles still cover the roof, giving that rich color combination of dull
reds, silver-grays, and moss-greens which one seldom sees elsewhere.
The ruins of the great church are the most impressive and melancholy
portion-doubly so when one learns that the earthquake of 1812 tumbled
the seven stone domes of the roof upon the congregation while at mass,
crushing out forty lives. Traces of the carvings and decorations still
remain which show that in rude artistic touches Capistrano church
surpassed all its compeers. A little nondescript campanile with four
bells remains, whose inscriptions and history are given in Father
O'Sullivan's "Little Chapters." Here, also, he gives one or two pleasing
traditions of the bells, which are worth repeating here:
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"Of the mission bells there are many traditions known to all the older people of San Juan. One of these relates to the good old padre, Fray Jose Zalvidea. Of all the mission padres, he more than the others, still survives in the living memory of the people and his name is the 'open sesame' to the treasure caves of local tradition.
"Adhering to the ancient custom of his brethren, he always traveled afoot on his journeys to other missions, or on calls to the sick. Once while returning from a visit to a rancheria in the north, the story runs, he was overtaken near El Toro, some twelve miles away, by the other padre of the mission, who rode in a carreta drawn by oxen. On being invited to get in and ride, he refused and answered pleasantly.
"'Never mind, my brother, I shall arrive at the mission before you to ring the Angelus.'
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"The other father, respecting Padre Jose's desire to proceed afoot, did not urge him further, but continued on his way in the carreta.
"Now in those days El Camino Real came into San Juan from the north, not as it does now, along the level side of the Trabuco Valley, but some rods to the east, over the rolling breasts of the lomas. From the mission patio one may still see the depression in the hill-top to the northwest of the mission, where the roadway came over the swelling ground there, and gave the weary traveler from the north a first full view of the mission. When the father in the carreta reached this point on the King's Highway, it was just the hour for the Angelus, and promptly on the moment the bells rang out the three-fold call to prayer. Wondering who could have rung the Angelus in the absence of both fathers, he hastened forward and found that Father Zalvidea, true to his word, had reached the mission before him; but how he did so to this day remains a mystery.
"Another of the traditions is as follows: There lived with her parents near the mission an Indian maid named Matilda, who was very gentle and devout and who loved to care for the sanctuary and to keep fresh flowers upon the altars. She took sick, however, and died just at the break of day. Immediately, in order to announce her departure, the four bells all began of their own accord, or rather, by the hands of angels, to ring together-not merely the solemn tolling of the larger ones for an adult nor the joyful jingling of the two smaller ones for a child, but a mingling of the two, to proclaim both the years of her age and the innocence of her life. Some say it was not the sound of the mission bells at all that was heard ringing down the little valley at dawn, but the bells in heaven which rang out a welcome to her pure soul upon its entrance into the company of the angels."
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This church was built of hewn stone and lime mortar, though most of the other buildings are of adobe.
Capistrano has many interesting relics. There are several statues, including one of San Juan Capistrano in military-religious habit, and of the Blessed Virgin. In the library are numerous illuminated books done by the old-time monks, who always ended their work with a flamboyant "Laus Deo." There are numerous old paintings of doubtful value and several beautiful silver candlesticks.
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The story of the mission is soon told, for it was very much like that of every other. It was founded in November, 1776, Father Serra himself taking part in the ceremonies. Ten years later there were five hundred and forty-four Indians under the padres, who had made good progress in the cruder arts and manufactures as well as agriculture. The beautiful church was consecrated with great ceremony in 1806 and was destroyed just six years later. It was the first of all to be "secularized." "The administration of the mission," writes Father O'Sullivan, "passed from the fathers into the hands of salaried state officials and it was only a short time until the lands and even the buildings themselves were sold off and the Indians sent adrift. Some years later, 1862, smallpox appeared among them and almost entirely wiped them out of existence, so that to-day not half a dozen San Juaneros remain in the vicinity of the mission." Even this pitiful remnant has disappeared since the foregoing words were written. On our last visit, Father O'Sullivan told us that on that very day he had buried the last descendant of the once numerous San Juan Mission Indians. "Surely," said he, "the day marks the end of an era in the history of San Juan Capistrano Mission, since it witnesses the utter extinction of the race of people for whose welfare this mission came into existence."
It was a lowering evening as we left after our first visit. The sky had become overcast by a dark cloud rolling in from the sea and raindrops began to patter on the ruin about us. "I am sorry to have the weather interfere with your pleasure trip," said Father O'Sullivan, "but I know that you yourselves would welcome the rain if you understood how badly it is needed here." And so we cheerfully splashed over the sixty miles of wet roads, reaching Los Angeles by lamplight.
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We made other pilgrimages to San Juan Capistrano under more favorable weather conditions, for the road is a lovely one. I have already told of a trip through the charming country to Santa Ana through the orange, lemon, and walnut groves that crowd up to the road much of the way. Beyond Santa Ana there are fewer fruit trees; here grain fields and huge tracts of lima beans predominate. The latter are a Southern California staple, and it was some time before we learned what they were planting with wheeled seeders the latter part of May. The beans usually mature without rain or irrigation-a crop that seldom fails. The country in the main is flat and uninteresting between Santa Ana and Capistrano, but there is always the joy and inspiration of the distant mountains. On one shimmering forenoon we saw a remarkable mirage in this vicinity-the semblance of a huge lake with trees and green rushes appearing in the distance. It receded as we advanced and finally faded away. Its startling distinctness forcibly recalled the stories we had read of travelers being deceived and tormented by this strange apparition in waterless deserts.