San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776.
It is the 7th mission of the 21 missions and was named after an Italian saint. St. Giovanni da Capistrano (John of Capistrano in English) was born in 1386.
The Mission was returned to the Catholic Church in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln. The property is owned by the Diocese of Orange, however, the Mission operates under a separate non-profit IRS 501 (c) (3) and is not financially supported by the Catholic Church, nor the state or federal government.
It sits on 10 acres which includes the Basilica and the Parish School.
“The Great Stone Church’s monumental construction began in 1797. The people of Mission San Juan Capistrano desperately needed a new church. The small adobe chapel they had been using for over ten years could not hold all of the Native Americans that lived at the Mission. A new church had to be constructed. Everyone in the Mission community wanted to be apart of this historic project, especially women and children. Although they could not gather two hundred pound blocks, they made a difference by doing the little things like gathering small stones, and gravel for the mortar which held the blocks together. Over the next nine years, the entire Mission community both young and old, both men and women, built the Great Stone Church.” – Source
“For nine years, they toiled, and in 1806, they finished the Church and had a grand party to celebrate. Tragically, only six years after they completed the church something terrible happened. On December 8, 1812, people arrived for the early morning mass. During the service, a great quake shook the earth. The bell tower swayed and collapsed on the center of the church blocking escape for all that were inside. Forty people scrambled trying to exit, but blocks of stone fell upon them.”– Source
Forty people were buried alive. After the disaster, the padres made no attempt at rebuilding, therefore leaving it in ruins for the entire community to remember their loss.
Mission San Juan Capistrano received the nickname the “Jewel” of the Missions because of the Great Stone Church. Upon its completion in 1806 (9 years of construction), it was considered a modern marvel, an architectural gem.
No other church compared in size or beauty on the West Coast of California. Although the church did not survive the earthquake of 1812, it is still inspirational in its ruins.
Four bells hang on the bell-wall, or Campanario.
The two largest bells hanging within the Campanario are replicas. The two smaller bells hanging in the Campanario are original.
Today, the original two largest bells are hanging where they would have stood within the bell tower of the Great Stone Church.
Each Bell has a special inscription with a date of casting. – The largest bell inscription reads, “Viva Jesus, Sn Vicente Advon De Los RRS PS Miros F VIcte Fustr IF JN SN TIAGO 1796” The English Translation reads, “Praised be Jesus, San Vicente. In honor of the Re. Fathers, Ministers (of the Mission) Fray Vicente Fuster, and Fray Juan Santiago, 1796.” – The next largest bell inscription reads, “ave maria purisima me fesit ruelas Ime yamo s. juan, 1796” The English translation reads, “Hail Mary most pure. Ruelas made me, and my name is San Juan, 1796.” – The largest of the smaller two bells inscription reads, “ave maria purisima, Sn Antonio, 1804.” The English translation reads, “Hail Mary most pure, San Antonio, 1804.” – The smallest bell inscription reads, “Ave Maria Purisima San Rafael, 1804.” The English translation reads, “Hail Mary most pure, San Rafael, 1804.” A year later, when Father Serra came to establish Mission San Juan Capistrano on November 1, 1776, the bells were either no where to be found, recast, or taken to another Mission. The mystery still lingers. Many townsfolk of San Juan Capistrano believe the bells are still underneath the earth waiting for someone to discover them.