It was inside Serra Chapel that my epiphany began.
It's an eerie place of beauty with history painted on its walls, a tiny room with a view of another age. In my life as a Californian, I have spent hours meditating in this birth chamber of the state. Said to be the oldest church in the West and the only remaining building in the United States where Father Junípero Serra recited Mass, this room at Mission San Juan Capistrano is where I had felt my first inkling of the cultural caldron from which California emerged. And it was to this room that I recently brought a relative stranger to that culture, my Filipino wife.
As we sat idling in the Friday afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic of the Santa Ana Freeway en route to L.A.'s Union Station, I told Anna that I hoped she would be able to see the roots of her adopted home in this mission visit.
"Frankly," she said, "I've never thought of California as Catholic."
Having moved to this country a mere four months earlier, my dear Anna — a Catholic, though I am not — would be learning something about her new home. At least, so I thought.
Train tickets had been inexpensive and easy to get. Only after boarding the southbound Amtrak did our problems begin. Not being a regular customer, I had naively assumed that the company wouldn't sell tickets for nonexistent seats. You can imagine my surprise and irritation when Anna and I found ourselves riding in a stairwell from which the passing scenery could be seen only as the dim reflection on a metal wall.
"Looking for a place to sit?" I overheard one passenger cheerfully inquire of another.
"Right now," the second guy responded in a tone several shades darker, "we'd settle for a place to stand."
As luck would have it, the train practically emptied out in Fullerton, allowing us to take our rest. The scenery we had missed, it turned out, had been missing all along. We settled deeply into our coveted seats for the remainder of the hour-and-15-minute ride.
Whatever pique we felt at having been treated like lost luggage during the initial leg of our trip disappeared upon our arrival at the Mission Inn, a quaint bed-and-breakfast a few blocks from the train depot and almost adjacent to the mission.
It was after 5:30 p.m. and the office was closed, but taped to its window was an envelope from the innkeepers. It bore our names and contained a map to our room and instructions on where to find the key. "Dear David and Anna," it said, "Welcome! Sleep well! Droze & Joey."
Room 30 felt more like home than my own untidy living room. For $175 a night plus tax (midrange for the inn), the space was neat, clean and outfitted with a large down comforter on the bed, his-and-her robes in the closet and a complimentary bottle of champagne in the fridge. Strains of Enya emanated from a CD player on the nightstand. Though the hotel calls itself "an early California hacienda-style inn," it exuded not-so-early California luxury.
"I feel elegant," Anna said, striking a chord in my heart.
It was difficult to leave, but we did, for a short stroll through downtown San Juan Capistrano and dinners of chicken chimichanga (hers) and enchiladas (mine) at El Adobe restaurant. Encouraged by two margaritas, I paid a mariachi the exorbitant sum of $20 for somewhat shaky renditions of "Bésame Mucho" ("Kiss Me Much") and other tunes.
The next morning, we were well rested and ready to tackle the main event of our weekend sojourn: touring the recently restored Mission San Juan Capistrano, considered by many to be the jewel of California missions. The mission was dedicated in 1776 by Father Serra, the Spanish priest often called the state's founder, as a major link in his string of coastal outposts designed to Christianize local Native Americans. Today it still towers as an exquisite example of early California architecture, especially the stark ruins of the five-story-high Great Stone Church built in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake six years later. The ruins were the main beneficiary of seismic retrofitting and historic preservation work completed this summer.
Our visit presented an opportunity to see the church unobstructed for the first time in years. Placed in supportive scaffolding in 1989, it had been unshackled just a few weeks before we arrived, after 15 years of painstaking structural reinforcement costing $9.6 million.
"Try to imagine what it must have been like here 200 years ago," our tour guide intoned as a volunteer with the mission's living-history program sauntered by in a monk's robe.
We walked through the gardens, toured the corridors, looked at the wine vats and ironworks, and ducked into the priest's room and military quarters, where the most interesting thing I learned was that Trabuco Canyon is named after a type of early Spanish firearm that a soldier lost there. Finally, hats in hand, we wandered reverently into Serra Chapel, where Indians had worshiped and the padre had said Mass.
What made the tiny adobe and wood-beamed church a time capsule was the art on its walls — a strange mixture of wispy Native American swirls in red and yellow framed by somber portraits of saints depicted in regal Spanish passion. The golden altar at the front of the sanctuary glittered in rich Catholic splendor. The room's sagging rafters seemed to drip with the enigmatic symbols of the Juanenos, whose land and culture was long ago assimilated into California.
Anna and I resumed our conversation on cultural roots later, while enjoying free sherry and homemade oatmeal cookies on the Mission Inn's veranda.
"You are fascinated by all this," she said, "but to me it's very familiar. The Philippines has a similar history — colonized by Spanish Catholics."
Anna spent $45 for a small plaster image of Mother Mary at the mission's gift shop, yet I wondered, did she still not see California as part of that Catholic heritage?
She didn't immediately answer my question. Instead, as darkness fell, we walked through Los Rios Historic District, one of the state's oldest neighborhoods and said to be one of its most haunted. Amid narrow cobbled streets lined with old adobe huts, a ghost called the white lady is supposed to reside.
She's "an elusive ghost," Pamela Hallan-Gibson wrote in the 1983 book "Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano." "She is young and pretty with long black hair and a seductive smile. She wears a long, white dress that ends in mist around her feet."
Despite our best efforts, we never caught a glimpse of the misted lady, and we laughed off our efforts over beer at the Swallow's Inn, a lively cowboy saloon.
By 7:30 the next morning we were back at Serra Chapel, one of only a few churches in Southern California where Sunday Mass is still said in Latin. Anna seemed strangely aloof during the service, declining to take communion. Afterward I asked her why.
"I just didn't feel it," she said.
Suddenly it dawned on me why she might not want to. Generations of immigrants, after all, have come to California not to embrace the past but to leave it behind. Life here has never been about the strengthening of tradition but the forging of that which is new.
The Indians who sat in this little church so long ago learned new prayers in a strange tongue and covered the walls with a hybrid of artistic styles, albeit not of their own volition. In this unlikely marriage of two cultures, something new had been born.
As we walked back to the train depot later that day, I was struck by how timely this visit had been for us, poised at the beginning of a new life, in what for Anna is a new land. Somehow we had touched a common root. Now — like California — we are a work in progress.
Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Amtrak, L.A.-San Juan Capistrano, round trip $56.00
Lodging, Mission Inn, two nights, with tax $385.00
Dinner, El Adobe, with drinks $53.28
Admission, Mission San Juan Capistrano $12.00
Drinks, Swallow's Inn $24.00
One breakfast $24.07
One dinner $75.07
Other meals $36.91
Union Station parking $12.00
Final tab $698.33
CONTACT: Mission Inn San Juan Capistrano, 26891 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675; (866) 234-0249 or (949) 234-0249, http://www.missioninnsjc.com .
Mission San Juan Capistrano, Ortega Highway at Camino Capistrano (P.O. Box 697, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693); (949) 234-1300, www.missionsjc.com.