The Swallow Choir Still Sings

In time for the Oct. 23 feast of St. John of Capistrano — when, God willing, the swallows will once again fly south for the winter — a visit to Southern California’s Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Joseph Albino.

San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

When I was growing up in upstate New York, an aunt and uncle who lived in California gave me as a birthday gift a children’s book about Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The gift was fitting because my birthday fell on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, when the swallows would make their annual return to the mission from their winter home in Argentina. And it launched appreciation for this fascinating and holy place.

Later, as an adult, I made it a point to spend one of my birthdays at the mission in order to see the return of the swallows. Also, while living for a while in Yuma, Ariz., near the California border, I would occasionally make a side trip to the mission — whose reality more than lived up to the promise it made in that book so long ago.

I think back to all those times each Oct. 23, feast of the mission’s patron. That would be St. John of Capistrano, a Franciscan who lived from 1386 to 1456. He’s also patron to judges, jurors and military chaplains.

The history of the California missions is at least somewhat familiar to most Catholics. Some 21 missions dot coastal California along El Camino Royal (the King’s Highway or the Royal Road), the forerunner to U.S. Route 101. This covers a distance of more than 600 miles, stretching from the San Francisco Bay to San Diego. Nine of the 21 missions were founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra, who has been called “the founder of California.” The one at San Juan Capistrano was his seventh.

Today it’s the most popular mission, drawing more than 300,000 visitors each year. (Its location between San Diego and Los Angeles doesn’t hurt.)

It was founded not once but twice. Initially Father Serra was sent to evangelize the New World natives and raise their standard of living. Under his direction, Spanish priests set up home base on Oct. 30, 1775, during the octave of the feast of John of Capistrano. Eight days later came word of an Indian uprising to the south. The priests buried the mission bells and hurried to San Diego, leaving only a cross standing.

When Father Serra returned the next year, he found the cross still standing. He dug up the bells and re-founded the mission. (Did he know that, across the continent, the American Revolution was raging?)

A Separate Peace

Whenever I visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, I make sure to stop at the campanario (bell wall). Four bells are here. The larger two are copies of the originals; their little sisters date to 1804.

Why copies on the campanario? Because the originals were relocated a few years ago to where the bell tower of a great stone church once stood. This church collapsed in an 1812 earthquake, killing 42 Indian worshipers.

Among the mission’s most inviting features are its world-renowned gardens. Here, peace permeates in a way that invites all comers to contemplate the wonder of God’s creation.

There’s a video presentation in the museum that first-time visitors shouldn’t miss. Also on display are artifacts from the Indians, the Spanish and the church.

A remnant of the original industrial center was unearthed during an excavation in the 1930s. Here the residents made soap, candles, grease and ointments — all from animal fat. Wool was dyed here, too, and the Catalan furnaces are the oldest of their kind in California. The mission blacksmith used them to melt iron ore.

A stately statue of St. Francis of Assisi watches over the garden and picnic area named for him.

Not far away, the Leon René Music Room showcases the piano Leon René used to compose the 1939 hit song “When the Swallows Return to Capistrano.” His sheet music is here, too.

The original chapel was built shortly after the mission’s founding in 1776 and is the most historically significant chapel in California. This little chapel is small, quaint, intimate and steeped in history.

In this chapel Father Serra celebrated Mass. For me the single most impressive visual aid to prayer is the baroque retablo. Four centuries old and made of cherry wood with gold-leaf covering, it’s adorned with the faces of 50 angels.

But when I sit here, my mind is always drawn beyond the physical beauty and into contemplation of the complex and dangerous task the brave and faithful Franciscans accepted to bring Christ to the far reaches of the world.

Mission San Juan Capistrano’s best days may yet lie ahead. For, while it’s so widely loved for its history, it’s also home to a thriving parish and school. The parish is centered on the Mission Basilica, a national shrine, which was built adjacent to the mission grounds in 1986 and received basilica status in the jubilee year 2000.

As for the most famous feature of all, the swallows:

Each March 19, around 100,000 tourists come to watch for the return of the swallows and, for one week, to celebrate the annual fiesta. The number of birds has declined in recent years, but they still come in the spring to nest in the eaves of the buildings.

And they still go in the fall — taking off right around the feast of St. John of Capistrano. May they never lose their way.

Joseph Albino writes from

Syracuse, New York.

Planning Your Visit

Daily Mass is celebrated at the Serra Chapel at 7 a.m. At the Mission Basilica, Masses are 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 p.m. on Wednesday. On Saturday, the vigil Masses are 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. (Spanish). Sunday Masses are at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. (Spanish) and 5 p.m.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

26801 Ortega Hwy.

San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

(949) 234-1300