Chuck Bodnar: Caretaker of St. Junípero Serra’s Secrets

From the Mystery of the Cross to the Mystery of the Padres’ Gold, Chuck Bodnar became the keeper of San Juan Capistrano’s hidden and still-unsolved secrets.

(photo: David Mark / Pixabay)

Hidden in the bell tower of Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California’s new church, just below the belfry, is a 24-foot by 24-foot windowless, hermetically-sealed, climatically-controlled room. It houses many of the existing treasures of the early mission and its founder, Father Junípero Serra.

And, for many years, the quiet keeper of these priceless archives — including a number of intriguing secrets and mysteries (some not yet solved) — was a tall, thin, elderly retired banker, Charles “Chuck” Bodnar.

Chuck Bodnar was a delightfully erudite man who, in the 1980s and 1990s, unquestionably became the foremost authority on San Juan’s “Jewel of the Missions” and of St. Junípero Serra, the short but steely Franciscan friar who personally founded nine of the 21 missions that are often referred to as “the cradle of California’s history.” The Capistrano mission was the seventh founded, in 1776, just four months after the founding of the United States of America.

Bodnar’s domain was a research library that is not open to the public, so he warmly welcomed infrequent visitors to his hushed aerie and greatly enjoyed sharing his vast knowledge with them.

Chuck Bodnar came to his job with neither a college degree nor any experience in archival work. He had, in fact, worked for Bank of America for 26 years before retiring.

He was long an active parishioner at Mission San Juan Capistrano parish, and then volunteered his services to the mission pastor, Msgr. Paul Martin (1930-2005), in any way he saw fit.

Knowing of Bodnar’s orderly banker’s mind, the pastor asked if he would become the mission’s much-need archivist. Bodnar said, “During my banking career, I sometimes had to track down various financial records for court cases and such, but that was really the extent of any of my so-called archival skills.”

“I have the people at our local San Juan Library to thank for giving me the quick education I needed, including how to set up the mission library according to the Cutter System.”

The mission’s collection of books and records, at the time he accepted the challenge in 1984, was in a sorry mess.

First of all, much of the original materials were either looted, sold or simply lost and scattered after Mexico secularized the Capistrano mission in the 1830s. It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln deeded the mission back to the Catholic Church in 1865, just a month before he was assassinated, that the archives began to grow again.

Then, in 1970, a fire in the mission’s rectory destroyed even more of the treasured works. But, with painstaking devotion to his assignment, Bodnar was able to amass — from commercial, private and corporate sources — a library of 1,500 invaluable books, including the five huge original records, written in Father Serra’s own hand, of the mission’s early baptism, marriages and deaths. The Capistrano mission has two churches — one an old adobe church built by the padres shortly after the mission’s founding in 1776, and the other a new church completed in the 1980s. The records are housed in bell tower alongside the new church.

The original Lincoln-signed documents are in the collection, along with a shelf filled with breviaries that belonged to the early friars, and an untold amount of historical ephemera: photos, deeds, letters, maps, documents and, more recently, video tapes, all neatly filed and catalogued in a massive row of cabinets.

Bodnar also put together several albums in which he inserted ongoing material pertaining to the mission. And, perhaps best of all, he became the keeper of many of the mission’s hidden and still-unsolved secrets.

Take, for instance, the Mystery of the Cross.

Bodnar, like a storyteller weaving folktales, said, “Soon after the mission was first established in 1775, the San Diego mission came under attack and all the San Juan Capistrano Franciscans and soldiers — after burying the mission cross and bell — rushed south to offer assistance.”

“When they returned and re-founded the mission in 1776, it is said they decided to move the mission to its current location, closer to San Juan Creek and its water supply. The original 1775 site — and cross and bell — have never been found.”

Bodnar had a Polaroid photo in his desk. He would show it to visitors and say, “Look at this clearly defined cross, carved into this tree trunk. It was discovered in a deep thicket in Casper Park’s Bell Canyon [in south Orange County].”

“From the size of the trunk, the tree is definitely several hundred years old, and it was felt by some that this could have been the padres’ way of marking the spot where they buried the cross and bell.”

“We decided to scour the surrounding area to see if the buried treasure would activate our metal detectors. But, unfortunately, nothing happened and, although we gave up our search as a dead end, there are those who still think this might have been the actual spot.”

Then, there’s the Mystery of the Padres’ Gold. Bodnar explained, “The shipment of monies from Spain to Mexico to San Juan — this was before the merchant ships began sailing around the Horn — was often long and arduous. And yet, the mission flourished dramatically and, for years, historians have begged the question: where did the friars get the necessary finances to back these continuous expansions?”

“One theory is they had a secret gold mine up in Lucas Canyon, about eight or 10 miles from here. Gold had been found up there — one piece was reported to be the size of a deck of cards — so my lapidary club got permission from the lessor to do some panning. One of our group actually did find a little nugget, but I’ve not been able to find any substantiation in any of the books or papers in the library to support this mystery.”

“And yet,” Bodnar would say with a conspiratorial squint to his eye, “there are those who maintain the padres had to have their own gold mine, which could, therefore, still be hidden up there in those hills.”

One scholar visited the mission’s library for several summers. Bodnar recalled, “She had a notion that the Franciscans had developed a secret code that allowed them to communicate throughout the entire system of missions without the military or the government knowing about their actions.”

Another of Bodnar’s favorite stories involved two noted mission historians, Msgr. Francis J. Weber and Pamela Halan. They claim that Father Serra had written a letter to all the missions saying he knew about the American Revolution that was being fought beyond the mountains on the East Coast of the continent.

Bodnar said, “Father Serra told them he was for the success of George Washington’s army, whose cause, he felt, was just and sought contributions, but mostly prayers, from each mission to help that cause.”

He continued, “These historians feel a monetary amount was collected but by the time it reached Washington, the war was over. The last we know for sure, the actual letter was in the hands of Father St. John O’Sullivan — he was pastor of the mission for more than two decades and called ‘the great builder’ of the mission — but that was back in 1929.”

“One conjecture,” Bodnar mused, “is that Father Serra may have written an outline of the letter in the margins of some book, but I’ve gone through all the old books that could actually have been in Father Serra’s hands and I’ve found nothing.”

But for the rest of his life, Bodnar kept looking. He reflected, “That’s what makes this job so fascinating. It’s become like a second career for me.”

One of the mission’s treasures is contained in a small, glass-covered oval. Inside is a drawing of Saint John of Capistrano, a 15th-century preacher for whom the mission is named, and a small beige remnant of one of his garments, perhaps a cassock.

Bodnar related, “This is a relic from St. John documented by the Vatican and I must tell you about the mysterious experience I had some time ago.”

“One day, walking through the mission parish church, I noticed that the hymnals were in a sad state. I do some of my own book binding, so I collected a bunch and repaired them up here. The day I returned the hymnals to the church, I came back to the rectory offices on the first floor and smelled a distinct odor.”

“As I came up on the elevator, the odor became stronger and when I entered the library here, it filled the room. That’s when I realized I had smelled the odor once before: it was the same musty smell I get when I sniff this fabric swatch, this relic.”

With a smile, Bodnar would conclude, “I’m not proclaiming any miraculous visitation or anything like that, but then again, I like to feel, maybe it was good old St. John of Capistrano’s way of saying, ‘thanks.’”


Tale of Mission San Juan Capistrano, from the archives: Mission San Juan Capistrano is referred to as “The Jewel of the Missions” because, over the years, people have labored to bring it back so successfully to its original condition. However, there is another less-known reason.

Father Serra, like all of the early Franciscan friars, was a highly educated man and not only learned the local Indian tribe’s language quickly but, just as fast, taught the Indians to speak Castilian Spanish as well.

And, he often taught them Christianity by using parables. One story, for instance, is about the building of an ancient holy place that was restricted to men only. 

The women, feeling left out, decided to bring all their glittering jewels to the site and, as the walls grew tall, they placed their various colored stones in the wet clay as their contribution.

When the Capistrano mission’s Great Stone Church was built in the early 19th century, the ruins of which still remain, the Indian women, remembering Father Serra’s story, knew they had no riches such as fine jewels.

So, they went down to the river bed and collected a jumble of smooth, shiny rocks and placed them in the wet adobe.

When you visit the Capistrano mission today, on the north end of the Great Stone Church’s ruins, you’ll still see those “jewels” sparkling in the sunlight.