New Church Complements Old Mission : San Juan Landmark Nearly Complete

By itself, the proposal probably seemed simple: Build a church.

But then came the details: Build it in the 18th-Century California style and build it big--big enough to seat 800 people. Ferret out the fine points of authentic architecture, design, ornamentation, paint, interior decor. Bring in ornate stone work from Utah, bronze bells from Holland, ceremonial furnishings from around the world.

Build it with the strength and practicality of the 20th Century, but with the grace and spirituality of the 18th. Build it next to California’s most famous mission and make it look like it belongs there.

The result is a striking and massive domed church--structurally authentic, historically accurate and the only full-sized Catholic church in San Juan Capistrano.


The New Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, expected to open sometime this fall, is a dream realized for Father Paul Martin, pastor of the mission since 1976. It was he who most recently proposed construction of a new church “in the spirit of the Old Stone Church” that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812.

Predecessor Shared Dream

“What I didn’t find out until after I proposed the idea to the Diocese of Orange,” said Martin, “was that Father St. John O’Sullivan, who was pastor here from 1913 to 1933, also had the idea of building a larger church here, modeled on the Old Stone Church.”

Since the destruction of the old church, which was on the mission grounds, Mass at the mission has been said in Father Junipero Serra’s chapel, a long, narrow and somewhat cramped sanctuary near the center of the mission grounds.


The growing population of San Juan Capistrano created a pressing need for a larger church, said Martin.

“We built the New Church for the same reason almost every church is built,” he said. “We needed more space for the people.”

Masses will continue to be said in the Serra Chapel, said Martin, but will not be as numerous.

The New Church, financed through pledge drives and the donations of mission visitors, is not a replica of the Old Stone Church, said Martin. Instead, it combines features of churches and missions in Old California, Mexico and Spain. Fitting the pieces together to form a plausible, consistent whole took research, detective work, sweat and a little luck.

“We knew certain things about the Old Stone Church to begin with,” said John Bartlett, architect of the New Church. “It was our guide. We knew, for instance, that it had seven domes, that it was cruciform (cross-shaped) with the three flatter domes in the nave, one in each transept and the large dome over the crossing of the nave and the transept.

Examined Other Missions

“But, because the Old Stone Church was destroyed, we had to guess in many cases what they would have done. We had to go to other mission churches and try to guess from what we saw there.

“It was definitely a challenge. I’ve done a good many churches, but most of them have been contemporary. This was extremely interesting, almost overwhelming. We approached it at first with some caution.”


Concessions had to be made to modern design specifications, said Bartlett, but he said most of these are invisible.

“The original church was stone, and, obviously, we couldn’t use that. It was destroyed in an earthquake. We used structural steel framework for the complete building, but that isn’t visually inconsistent with the style of the time because the surfaces you see are plaster.”

The white plaster is textured in the style of 18th-Century Mexican churches, said Martin, and the ornate, gray stone work high of the interior walls was supplied by a Utah company.

“That stonework is a lost art,” explained Martin. “There’s just no one else around who does it.”

Another modern addition will be rows of pews (there were none in the original church) and carpeting. The aisles already are laid, with angular red tiles of the type that formed the floor of the Old Stone Church.

Unquestionably, the most striking interior feature of the New Church is the vivid wall paintings, researched and applied by Norman Neuerburg, professor emeritus of art history at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“The colors are actually the old mission colors without the dirt,” said Neuerburg. “I like to say I began with what I found in the old church and just finished the job.”

Neuerburg spent weeks examining the ruins of the Old Stone Church, checking tracings and photos and taking paint samples from the ancient walls, after carefully scraping away the accumulated grit.


Also, he said, because the old church was not yet completed when the earthquake occurred, he found on the old stone walls etchings and sketches for paintings that were to have been applied, and used them as a guide for the new artworks.

By studying ornamental paintings and designs in other missions, traveling as far as a church in Majorca where Father Serra was a professor before he sailed for the New World, Neuerburg was able to establish what he called a “basic vocabulary” of design and color for the New Church.

“That sort of detective work,” he said, “is sort of my specialty.”

The colors almost glow. Turquoise, orange, red and bright blue abound, particularly in and around a niche in the southern wall that is being reserved for a statue of Father Serra on the occasion of his expected venerability, the first step toward sainthood. Venerability, said Martin, may be conferred this year.

Michelangelo Revisited

Neuerburg has been tracking down the colors and designs since 1978, and has been painting the interior since June, 1983.

“I can sympathize with Michelangelo,” he said, smiling. “There are really no creature comforts when I have to work on the scaffolding, but I do get lots of exercise.”

The altar and its furnishings, as well as ornamentation for the adjacent chapel and the front and side doors of the church, have yet to be commissioned, said Martin, but the church is expected to be functional “sometime this summer.” The dedication date has not yet been set, he added.

Impromptu services already have taken place in the building, however, and in March, two performances of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” were given by members of the Orange County Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale.

Later last month the eight bronze bells, cast in Holland, were dedicated, blessed and hoisted into the bell tower. They are rung, said Bartlett, by an electronic console in the base of the tower that can be programmed for different ringing sequences.

“Everyone has found it breathtaking,” said Martin. “During construction, people were standing out on the corner watching all the time.

“Looking at it from the outside, I think people may find it rather large and formidable, but when they get inside, I think they’re surprised. It’s spacious, but it’s alive and warm.”

The New Church already has become a landmark of San Juan Capistrano. It has become, said Bartlett, “the definite focal point of the community.”