San Juan Capistrano Stories and Tips

The Mission and and its famous swallows

the mission Photo, San Juan Capistrano, California

Although the purpose of this article is to provide you with other options besides spending all your time at the beautiful old mission, no article about San Juan Capistrano would be complete without at least a few words about its history and how the legend of the swallows began.

According to Mr. Gerald Miller, the administrator of the mission, the return of the swallows to Capistrano's mission began centuries ago. The legend of the swallows has been written about in song and stories and has become a well-known event around the world.

It all began in 1769 when a group of Spanish explorers from Mexico traveled through the area now known as San Juan Capistrano. There were already large numbers of Native Americans living in the area. They called themselves, "Acjachemen," although they would later be renamed the "Juaneno Indians" by the padres. Later, the well-known Spanish padre and presidente of the newly established California mission system, Junipero Serra, arrived, founding the seventh mission. San Juan Capistrano was named for an Italian Franciscan hero who had lived more than 300 years earlier.

The chapel was the first building to be completed in 1776. Although it has been renovated, the chapel is the oldest building in California which is still in use.

The five-story tall "Great Stone Church," was built of local sandstone. With its 100-foot bell tower and roof of seven domes, in its time, the structure was considered an architectural wonder. Because of the new mission's beauty, it was known as the "Jewel of the Missions."

Sadly, the Great Stone Church was nearly destroyed in the 1812 earthquake, crushing 40 worshippers inside its collapsing walls. Visitors can still see the crumbling ruins, although there's a preservation project underway to protect to stablize what's left of the once-grand church.

After the mission system ended, the San Juan Capistrano mission began to fall into terrible disrepair. In 1910 Mission pastor, St. John O'Sullivan, took over the project to restore the mission. O'Sullivan is credited with the origin of the swallows legend. One day when the padre was in town, he noticed a local shopkeeper batting at several mud nests in the eves outside his store. Dozens of squeeling swallows frantically darted and swooped about, as their homes were destroyed. The padre spoke to the birds, inviting them to build their homes inside the mission grounds. The next day, the padre discovered that the swallows had begun to build their nests in the ruins of the Great Stone Church. Although their numbers have dwindled (likely due to environmental problems), the swallows return to the mission each spring, where they are protected and honored by an entire community.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip