When the swallows come back to Capistrano,
That’s the day I pray that you’ll come back to meLeon Rene, 1940
Made famous by the Ink Spots, the beautiful song written by Leon Rene in 1940 reverberates through the arches and passageways of Mission San Juan Capistrano on a beautiful Saturday morning. Sung today by Renee Bondi with a mariachi band as backup, the words speak to my soul and my heart. The iconic love song is, after all, about this place.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is truly one of the gems of the California Missions. It was founded on November 1, 1776 by Junipero Serra, the father of the mission system. Seventh of the 21 missions built by Spain to colonize and baptize California, it sits only a couple miles inland of the Pacific in San Juan Capistrano, in the southern part of Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. While most surviving missions are no more than a chapel at this point in time, Mission San Juan Capistrano has preserved its original chapel, several other buildings, two courtyards, and the remnants of the Great Stone Church, destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. It is magnificent, an architectural treasure unto itself.
I am here today for St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. Today is the day the swallows are officially welcomed back to the mission. It is these birds that made Mission San Juan Capistrano famous, inspiring the song that has led literally millions to journey here. According to a legend, a shopkeeper in the local town was knocking down swallows nests from his eaves, thinking the birds to be pests. The pastor of the mission spoke to the birds, and told them to seek shelter inside the mission walls. And so they did, using this as their summer home after a journey of more than 6,000 miles each year from Argentina, a migration that can be considered miraculous unto itself. While I don’t see any swallows today, a few nests are evident, though I overhear word that they may be man-made to encourage the birds to colonize nearby.
Today’s program is a celebration of the past and present of Mission San Juan Capistrano, and takes efforts to include all groups who are relevant. Tribal singers from the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians (also known as the Achemen Nation) lead to Mexican singers and dancers, who in turn lead into words from the director of the California Missions Foundation, here for the occasion. Snacks are available, as are art projects for kids, native basketweaving demonstrations, and a virtual presentation on the swallows themselves. It is crowded, and the line to get in is still evident even after I leave.
Dazzling in her dress imprinted with swallows (shockingly not the only swallow-themed apparel I see during the day), Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the executive director of the mission, takes a few minutes to speak with me. “Mission San Juan Capistrano,” she tells me, “is all about a journey to renewal.” She points to a carving over an doorway with the word resurgam. It seems renewal has always been a theme here.
And so it is for all of the visitors. Some find renewal in the Serra Chapel, with its colorfully painted walls and ceilings and its golden altarpiece. Some find it in the artwork on display in several rooms off of one of the courtyards, some on loan from other museums and featuring local landscapes, other pieces created by unknown artists who lived here during the mission’s heyday. And for others like me, renewal can best be found strolling the grounds, admiring the gardens of native Californian plants, all of which seem to be blooming in celebration, or the spectacular fountains overgrown with moss, trickling into pools of lily pads and koi.
The past couple of years have been hard on Mission San Juan Capistrano, as with so many places reliant on visitors. Today’s crowd is a good start in returning the mission to a break-even budget, but it will take time to undo two years of Covid-induced deficit. Mechelle, however, chooses to look at the positives. During the years the mission was closed, virtual tours were launched, and this year, more than 27,000 California fourth graders participated as part of their California history curriculum. This is something that has expanded access to the mission to those who aren’t able to physically visit, and she believes that many will now choose to come and marvel in person.
As the music plays, I close my eyes to the spring sun, feeling the cool breeze off the ocean on my face. The words of the song echo through me, and I wonder if perhaps I have misunderstood the meaning. I watch worshipers on their knees in prayer, parents and children holding hands and smiling in the gardens, and think that perhaps “coming back to me” refers to Mechelle’s sense of renewal, of people coming back to a sense of spirituality here at what is unquestionably a site of sacred beauty.
Or perhaps coming back to me, in the song, refers not to a lovesick singer, but to this place, to Mission San Juan Capistrano itself. As the mission’s bells are rung in celebration, I know with certainty, just as the swallows will return, so too will I.
I want to thank Mission San Juan Capistrano for hosting me on St. Joseph’s Day. This was my first visit to the mission, a place that has been on my wish list for some time. It did not disappoint! If you are interested in other California missions, I have also written about Mission San Fernando and Mission Santa Clara.
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