Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Back in 1912, a man by the name of St. John O'Sullivan wrote a short book entitled, "Little Chapters About San Juan Capistrano". About four years ago, I transcribed the book word-for-word, and reprinted it on the old website. Today, I reformatted the pages, and linked them up to the present-day blog site. Click the link above to see it.

O'Sullivan was the first resident priest of Mission SJC since its restoration in 1895. He was actually the one who started the restoration.

It was around the 1880's when Californians rediscovered the missions lining the coast. A "renaissance" period started which lasted until around the 1930s. During this time, people fell in love with the California missions, and saw them as beautiful oases in the middle of savage wilderness. They saw the missionaries as gentle souls, who wanted nothing more than to teach the native indians about Art, Science, and Agriculture.

O'Sullivan was very much caught up in the "romanticism" of the period, and his writing very much reflects this perception. Throughout the 20th Century and into today, schools use this same perception when teaching California students about the mission system.

However, it was only until the last 10-20 years that historians have been telling the true story of the mission system, its purpose to support the military bases (Presidios), the torture and slavery of the native indians, the abolishment of their language and culture, and the political in-fighting between Father Serra and the Governor of California.

One of the best books I've read thus far on this subject is "Life in a California Mission", by Malcolm Margolin. The book is actually a transcription of the journals of Jean Francois de La Perouse. Perouse was an explorer dispatched by France in 1786 to learn about what the Spanish were doing along the California Coast. He landed in Monterey Bay, and met with Father Fermin Lasuen, the man who took over for Father Serra. Serra had died two years before Perouse landed in Monterey. He recorded everything he saw into his journals. To say the least, this book competely changed my perception of the California missions, and of Father Serra.

Anyone wishing to learn more about how Mission San Juan Capistrano was built, and what each of the buildings and structures mean, might do well to start with "Little Chapters About San Juan Capistrano".


  1. My Grandma Eva was born at the mission that was built by her people, (forced slavery)the Ajachemem tribe of coastal natives.I'm a halfbreed.I would love to know something about my tribe but most of the culture has been destroyed.I supress my deep bitterness.Truth is infallible.Get my drift?I believe in Christ and His teachings and try to practice His doctrine every day of my life.But I do love my dog more than any spanish priest or soldier or catholic that saved the Tribe of peaceful respectful people.My voice is just begining.I am an Artist and a Journeyman Signpainter.As time goes on the truth will be known.My work is in view all around these coastal towns. When I decide to depict the truth then more folks will know.The reason I lack motivation is that people don't really care about Native Americans.But the Jews are never forgotten.A few of my best friends are Jews.They know.So that's why the mission sjc means nothing to me except that my dear Grandma Eva was once a young pretty girl working in the mission garden and my Grandfather rode by on his horse and saw her and fell in love with her.And that's the reason I'm here.And I know plenty more about Orange County too.

  2. Mission San Juan Capistrano holds a very funny memory for me when I was in 4th Grade. I was going to elementary school at Sierra Elementary near Grand Ave and 17th St in Santa Ana. We took a field trip to MSJC one day, and a small group of us were staying with our teacher and getting her perspective on things. One of the boys in the group was holding a guide map of the grounds and was orienting the map as we walked along, seeing the sights, and reading the signs. At one point, the kid holding the map, asked us, "What do these lines mean?", and pointed at some lines on the map about the point where we were on the trail. As soon as he asked the question, he fell down about 4-5 steps which were located on the trail, and indicated on the map. He wasn't hurt much, but we all got a good laugh out of it. I haven't been to MSJC in years, but I always used to look for it when driving along I-5 in the area.

  3. I hope you won't mind my disagreeing with you on how the mission history was taught...

    In the fifth grade (El Morro Ele., Laguna Beach, 1966) we were taught about the culture clash the 'gentle priest' created with the mission system of 'saving' the Indians by forcing them to work on building the missions.

    We were also taught about the Anglo invasion that garnered the territory for the U.S., and how the Gold Rush started the entire West Coast down that slippery slope. We were taught about all of the injustices in California history-no apologies or justifications, either, up to and including the horrors done to the Chinese workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the internments of the Japanese during WWII.

    We were taught these injustices should not be repeated, were wrong, and inexcusable. In fact, we were taught about the only thing U.S. California got right was coming in as a 'Free-State'.

    Throughout my Orange County public school education (4th through 12th grades) my fellow students and I were taught the plain unvarnished truth of what it cost the peole who were here first, Ichi's people, to suffer the invasion of first the conquistadores then the Anglos.

    And mind you, I went to school during the so-called John Birch days.

    I'm terribly sorry things have changed...

  4. I didn't realise that Fr.O'Sullivan had written more than one book on the mission.I have a 1930 printing of "Capistrano Nights" by Charles Francis Saunders and Fr.St.John O'Sullivan, autographed by the good Father himself, to a Father James Killian, dated 1930. This book is precious to me, because in the years my family went to Mass there at the Mission, in the late 1960s and '70s, I came to be friends with many of the oldtimers of the mission, who knew people mentioned in the book, such as old Acu the bellringer. Paul Arbiso used to tell me stories about Acu, while we would package up the little envelopes of grain that were sold to tourists to feed the pigeons. I also knew several of the desendents of Mission Indians, and the stories they told me of their family history was one of content.

    I wish that the mission would reprint this book, and the writings of Msgr. Vincent Lloyd-Russell on the history of the mission... wonderful reading and folk history that should not be lost.

  5. As an elementary school graduate of Mission San Juan Capistrano in the mid-50s, I can't begin to tell you how disappointed and angry I was when my husband and I returned to visit a few years ago. It's no longer run by the Catholic Church (the Maryknoll nuns and Fr. Hartman are long gone) and the "tour guide" didn't even know who Msgr. Russell was, much less where he was buried! To add to my ire, when we went into the church (where I received my Confirmation), I was stunned by the music that was blasting in that holy of holiest places...gangster rap! Students that were being chaperoned (?) by several teachers were carrying their boom boxes around with that CRAP (f*** this and f*** that) blasting! When I asked one of the teachers to remind the students that this was a church, her response to me was: "Oh, chill. After all, it's not a church anymore!" Strange, it still looked like a church to me - perhaps I was just hallucinating but I could swear that I could still see that magnificant alter, beautiful statuary and Stations of the Cross mounted in the stucco walls! Anyway, with that piece of "chilling" advice, we left and will never return again. Wonderful childhood memories shattered as swiftly and cruelly as that vile music and totally disrespectful person (teacher) of lower education! How she'll ever convey personal responsibility and respect to any child is anyone's guess!

    The mission itself looks almost nothing like it did when we were students; and, under its present management has truly reinvented itself into a typical tourist trap along with the made up history and proported "artifacts"!

    What a terrible shame...poor Msgr. Russell is rolling over in this grave!


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