Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 28, 2015

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Visitors to California don’t always realize that they’re in a place that’s been occupied for more than the hundred sixty-six years since the Gold Rush.

As one flies into LAX over the endless carpet of metropolis or crawls the clogged freeways to the beach or Disneyland, it’s hard to imagine a distant past, but the place has been occupied for thousands of years. We excel at paving over the past here.

The prehistoric past is difficult to find outside of museums, although it’s waiting for you in the mountains, canyons, and up in the desert if you go in search of it. The historic past in Los Angeles, though, is accessible, if not always evident.

One place to find it is Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8407 (640x480)

Founded in 1776, it was the 7th of 21 Catholic missions established in what is now California during Spain’s drive to colonize. You’ll drive about 90 minutes south from LAX to get there. You can see the highlights in an hour if you’re in a rush to get to the beach, but there are extensive historical displays about the life, agriculture and operation of the mission to see if you can spare more time.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8408 (640x448)

You can visit the chapel, built in 1782, considered the oldest standing building in California.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8423 (640x480)

In 1797 work began on the “Great Stone Church,” a massive structure modeled on European cathedrals, 180 feet long by 40 feet wide with 50-foot high walls and a 120-foot tall bell tower. It was completed in 1806. It was, however, not expertly constructed.

On Sunday, December 8, 1812, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a 7.0 earthquake collapsed the church’s nave and the bell tower. Services were in progress and 42 people died. Today a ruin of that building is all that remains.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8399 (640x356)

To left in that photo you can see the campanario “arbor” that holds some of the mission’s bells.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8403 (640x480)

The larger two are replicas (the originals disappeared in the 1790s), the smaller two are originals, cast in 1804. Here’s the reverse view from a small garden enclosure.

Capistrano Bells Brad Nixon 8427 (640x480)

The mission was a large operation, with more than 70 structures and thousands of inhabitants. There were extensive fields, shops, mills and even a vineyard, the first in California, establishing a wine-making tradition that is a hallmark of California today. Here are vats that were part of the wine-making process.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8419 (640x480)

There’s an admission fee. You’ll find a city parking lot a short walk to the east. The mission is almost immediately adjacent to Interstate 5 at the Ortega Highway exit. It’s an interesting perspective on what was happening under western skies under a different flag at exactly the time the young United States was taking shape 2,000 miles to the east.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8434 (640x480)

The story of this very successful mission, like all the California missions, isn’t unalloyed with an unhappy side. The Spanish and the church — as did all European colonizers across North America — took over the land and lives of innumerable native residents, essentially eliminating their cultures, “converting” them, enslaving or killing those who resisted. The farm labor and the hands that built these structures were, at best, indentured servants, and, at worst, slaves. It gives one pause. A lot has changed in 239 years. Not everything.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2018


  1. Beautiful photos!


    • Thank you. That’s a valued compliment, coming from a source rich in photography by your contributors.


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