when the swallows come back

the serra chapel

Mission San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782 known as Serra’s Chapel. (The hand-carved baroque altar is estimated to be over 400 years old.) One of the best known of the California missions, the success of the settlement is evident in its historical records. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, some 550 natives were scattered throughout the local area; by 1790, the number of converted Christians had grown to 700, and just six years later nearly 1,000 recent converts lived in or around the Mission compound. However, the most surprising thing I discovered is the criolla or “Mission grape.” Planted at the Mission in 1779, the first wine produced in Alta California emerged little more than four years later, setting the stage for what would become California’s wine industry. The ruins of The Great Stone Church – all but leveled by an 1812 earthquake – are a renowned architectural wonder, but the Mission is enshrined in popular culture by the annual “Return of the Swallows.” According to legend, the birds, who have visited the San Juan Capistrano area every summer for centuries, first took refuge at the Mission when an irate innkeeper began destroying their mud nests. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the American Cliff Swallow spends its winters in Argentina, making the 6,000-mile trek north each spring in search of warmer climes, if not religious enlightenment.

mission bells

mission san juan

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