‘Jewel of the Missions’
One of the more exciting conservation projects undertaken recently by Mission San Juan Capistrano involved a mystery solved by a little bit of detective work.
A painting more than two centuries old depicting Jesus’ Crucifixion was discovered hidden behind another painting that hung in the mission’s Serra Chapel and had been unseen for 40 years.
“There were rumors that there was another painting behind it,” said Mechelle Lawrence Adams, executive director of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
What they uncovered was “The Crucifixion,” part of a Stations of the Cross collection of historic paintings that came from Mexico to the mission in the early 1800s.
The original Station of the Cross XII painting, done in 1800 by an artist named Jose Francisco Zervin, had been covered since 1973 by a replica because the original was in poor condition from years of exposure to harsh environment, movement and neglect.
Zervin’s restored artwork was unveiled last May and is now on display in the Serra Chapel.
Other conservation work includes the completion last year of the $3.3 million Gate House Preservation Project, which entailed constructing a new ticket booth and welcome area for guests, relocating and constructing a new group entry, installing trees, benches, and landscaping, and rehabilitating the historically significant 1916 original Gate House, which had become dilapidated.
“(The Gate House) was the original ticket booth for the mission,” Lawrence Adams said. “Over the years, a wall was installed that hid the building, and the building was no longer in use and clad in vines.
“It was a significant accomplishment in the field of preservation. Sometimes people will tear down and rebuild. We brought the original intention of the building back to its original use. We brought it around full circle and made it part of the admission experience.”
In addition, the mission gift shop was moved out of the historic 18th century Sala building, and a new streetfront mission store was built.
This will allow the Sala to be restored and used as a museum space.
The Sala in the past had been used as housing for priests and as a chapel, and also served as the private residence for the Forster family, which owned the mission from 1845 to 1865.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is 238 years old, making the preservation of it among the most vital duties of those who oversee the continued viability of the historic landmark, which is considered to be the birthplace of Orange County.
“Historical sites are never made with the intention of being historic. They grow into significance,” Lawrence Adams said. “As they become historic, things need to change.”
Preservation “is absolutely a necessary part of good stewardship of these landmarks. Without a plan, they would not be here.
“We have an obligation to respect the generations that came before us. We do have an obligation to make sure it’s not lost.”
Mission San Juan Capistrano, named after St. John of Capistrano, a 15th century theologian, is billed as the “Jewel of the Missions.”
The mission is best known for the cliff swallows that return each year to the mission on or about March 19, also known as St. Joseph’s Day, from their wintering grounds 2,000 miles away in Argentina.
The swallows can be seen building nests in the mission’s eaves, although their number has dwindled over the years due to urbanization. In mid-October, they began their migration back to Argentina.
The mission was founded on Nov. 1, 1776, by Padre Junípero Serra and was the seventh of the 21 California missions established by Spanish missionaries between 1769 and 1823.
As Orange County’s only mission, Mission San Juan Capistrano is an historic landmark and museum that features permanent and traveling exhibits and attracts 330,000 visitors annually.
Currently on display in the Sala is “Camposanto: A Historical Tribute to the Mission Cemetery.”
The exhibit pays homage to the landmark Mission Cemetery, which is located east of the Serra Chapel.
Historians believe burials there first began in 1781 and continued to about 1850. An estimated 3,400 were buried in the camposanto, or holy field, including American Indian men, women and children, as well as Spanish soldiers and their families.
“It was not common practice among the Spanish missions in the 18th and 19th centuries to use coffins or headstones to mark individual graves,” a mission press release states. “Instead, mass graves often were utilized for those who died around the same time.
“Evidence of this practice was discovered in 1992 when cables used to secure the Serra Chapel’s east wall were anchored to the ground, and mission archeologists uncovered stacked bodies laid in an east-west orientation.”
Although precise locations of the buried are not known, the identities of every man, woman and child laid to rest in the Mission Cemetery have been recorded. Franciscan padres kept sacramental records in a leather-bound book called a Burial Register. It includes the name, age, name of parents or spouse and the day they died, the press release said.
The mission is at 26801 Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano. Hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily. It is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days and at noon on Good Friday and Christmas Eve.
The new mission store hours are 10 am to 6 pm.
Admission, which includes a free audio tour, is $9 for adults: $8 for seniors 60 and older; $6 for children, ages 4 to 11.
For more information, call 949/234-1300 or go to www.missionsjc.com.