Mission San Juan Capistrano – San Juan Capistrano, California - Atlas Obscura

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Oldest building in California still in use. 


Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally consecrated by Father Lasuen on October 19, 1775. But eight days later, word arrived that a revolt was occurring in San Diego; a group of natives had attacked and killed a missionary. The padres and soldiers buried the bells of San Juan, packed up their things and headed to the fort in San Diego for safekeeping. A year later, Father Serra and other Franciscans returned. The bells were still intact, and so was the cross they had erected at the site. They celebrated mass on All Saints Day, 1776, which is still celebrated as the official day of founding.

Father Serra’s Chapel, which was first used in 1782, is the second oldest building in California that is still in use. In 1796, construction began on a large stone church intended to be the most glorious of all the churches in California. Natives transported stones from a quarry six miles away to build the Great Stone Church, which was constructed in the shape of a cross 180 feet long and 40 feet wide. It was the only chapel in Alta California that was not made from adobe. According to legend, the tower can be seen for miles and the bells can be heard from even further away. The church was completed in 1806. Tragically, six years later, a series of massive earthquakes obliterated the bulk of the church and bell tower; it was the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and the church had been packed with worshipers. Forty-two were killed.

Real restoration only occurred much later, in the early 20th century. The walls and ceiling were refurbished and strengthened. A beautiful golden altar was installed at the north end. D.W. Griffith shot the film “The Two Brothers” at San Juan Capistrano; it was the first film ever shot in Orange County. In 1911, silent film star Mary Pickford wed actor Owen Moore in the chapel.

Due to the extensive earthquake damage the church has suffered, the World Monuments Fund placed the “Great Stone Church” on its list of 100 Most Endangered sites. However, restoration continues and hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the San Juan Capistrano every year. It is celebrated for its extensive gardens, which are lush and beautiful, particularly when juxtaposed against the weathered stone of the buildings.

In the spring, thousands of swallows travel thousands of miles from Central America to take up residence in the old church in Orange County. Their arrival is commemorated with parades and fiestas. The Mission also hosts events that range from making clay pots, to festivals throughout the year.

Know Before You Go

From Highway 5 North or Highway 5 South, take the second San Juan Capistrano exit, which is Ortega Highway. Turn right off the freeway onto Ortega Highway. The Mission is straight ahead 2 ½ blocks on the right.Check out the Los Rios neighborhood close by and across the railroad tracks - it's one of the oldest neighborhoods in Alta California.

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