San Juan Capistrano Landmark: A New Church With an Old Twist

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

The Mission Church, the most visible landmark in San Juan Capistrano, is not, as many have assumed, a replica of the Old Stone Church that once stood on the adjacent mission grounds.

It is actually a sort of hybrid, less a clone of the Stone Church than a blood relative. When the designers of the new church sat down at their drawing boards, they had few clues as to what the original church looked like apart from the section of the sanctuary and a few ruined walls that still stand. The church collapsed in an earthquake in 1812, only six years after it was completed.

Since that time, Masses at the mission most often have been said in the Serra Chapel, a small church on the mission grounds. But when the new church opened its doors to parishioners for the first time 2 1/2 years ago, San Juan Capistrano had not only a more accommodating facility for its Catholic population, but a repository of early California history.

The church, said Father Paul Martin, pastor of the mission, probably is quite close architecturally to what the Old Stone Church must have been. The sanctuary, particularly, is accurately represented, since that part of the Stone Church still stands. However, the rest of the new church was constructed through educated guesswork, using other California missions and churches of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as models.

Also, said Martin, the new church is 10% larger than the Stone Church.

It is also 100% more colorful. Drawing on records of the time, as well as existing examples from other mission churches throughout the state, artist Norman Neuerburg spent four years painting the textured plaster walls of the new church in bright floral designs. And, said Sacristan Richard Calef, the colors are accurately represented. The yellows, the reds and particularly the wide use of bright turquoise could be found in many churches of 200 years ago.

Other architectural elements--decorations and pediments over arches, brickwork in the floor, even modern-looking crystal chandeliers--are accurate reproductions of their counterparts either in the Old Stone Church or in similar buildings, Calef said.

However, framed paintings that are hung throughout the church, as well as statuary and an altarpiece in a side chapel, are actual works that were produced during the time of the original Stone Church and likely came from that church, Calef said. One painting, a representation of St. Juan Capistrano by Jose de Paez, was commissioned by Father Junipero Serra in 1775.

While there is little in the new church that suggests modern times, there are clues that this church will not suffer the same fate as the Stone Church. The walls, said Calef, are two-foot-thick lath and plaster, supported by steel. The pillars supporting the arches and domes of the church extend 30 feet into the ground. The ringing acoustics are blunted somewhat by low hanging omnidirectional speakers that focus the priests' words at a level closer to the congregation, avoiding the reverberation of the dome above. And, as a concession to future historians, the paint used for the wall decoration is acrylic and latex. It will not chip, fade or peel, Calef said.

Even when the church is out of sight, it is seldom out of mind for anyone living or working nearby. Each weekday at noon and 6 p.m. the eight brass bells in the church's tower peal the Angelus. The Dutch bells, ranging in weight from 250 to 4,000 pounds, also ring before each Sunday Mass and on special occasions such as weddings, said Calef.

The church even features a touch of slightly macabre humor, courtesy of Neuerburg, the painter. Calef said that Neuerburg feared that his work, in which he took pains to accurately reproduce the imprecisions of similar original work, might inflame critics.

"He said he thought the critics might skin him alive," said Calef. "So when he went to sign his name to his work, he went to the picture (that he drew) of St. Bartholemew and wrote it on Bartholemew's sword."

St. Bartholemew, Calef pointed out, died a martyr after being skinned alive.


What: A reproduction, in part, of the Old Stone Church at the mission that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1812. Other architectural elements are taken from other churches of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Where: Corner of Camino Capistrano and Acjachema Street, San Juan Capistrano.

Hours: Visitors welcome 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Tours: No regular tours of the church are offered but can be arranged for groups through the church office at 493-1424.

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