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The Jewel of the Missions

Mission San Juan Capistrano's history began in 1776. San Juan Capistrano became the seventh mission in the chain of 21 missions along the Pacific Coast. Its location near a harbor and good water source helped it become known as the “jewel” of the missions.

California Indians living at the mission constructed a chapel there in 1782. The chapel became known as Father Serra's Church, after Roman Catholic priest Junípero Serra. It is believed to be California's oldest standing church. Housing, workshops, kitchens, and storerooms were also built for the priests and Spanish soldiers. The mission thrived and a new church, the Great Stone Church, was built to fit the growing population.

The Great Stone Church was designed to be the heart of the mission. Construction began in 1797. For nine years, workers built the church from stones they hauled to the site. Finally, in 1806, the church was ready. Built in the shape of a cross, it stood five stories high and had seven curved domes. A huge bell tower could be seen ten miles away.

Living History

But the Great Stone Church stood for only six years. In 1812, a series of earthquakes toppled the church. It was never rebuilt.

Today, about half of the original buildings of Mission San Juan Capistrano still stand. Besides the chapel, visitors can see the stone ruins of the Great Stone Church, the adobe barracks, beautiful gardens, and an olive millstone. The olive millstone was a large stone used to crush olives into olive oil.

Visitors come to enjoy the many festivals and special events at the mission. The most famous of these is the Return of the Swallows Festival. Small birds called cliff swallows make a 2,000-mile migration every spring from their winter homes in Argentina to California. The swallows' return is celebrated with music, Indian dance groups, craft-making demonstrations, and special foods.

Saving the Jewel

Many people are working to help restore the “jewel” of the missions. Special events raise money for preservation. The mission has a team of experts who work to restore and preserve the mission for generations to come. By restoring the mission, they hope to fix the cracks, replace missing and broken pieces, and bring it back to its original condition. The experts worked hard to preserve, or protect, the Great Stone Church from further damage. Now, leaders are working on a project to help restore and protect the statues, artwork, artifacts, and building of Father Serra's Chapel. They hope that people will be able to visit the chapel for many years in the future.