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Bell Ringer Who Centered Life on Mission Dies at 99 : Obituary: San Juan Capistrano’s patriarch Paul Arbiso is remembered as the city’s ‘living link with the past.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paul Arbiso, who was known as the living embodiment of historic San Juan Capistrano and as the beloved bell ringer who welcomed the swallows home every year on Swallows Day, died in his sleep Monday night at age 99.

As the city’s patriarch since 1952, Arbiso was a connection with San Juan Capistrano’s rich frontier history, someone who could regale listeners with tales of life before automobiles, freeways and condominiums.

“He was our living link with the past,” Mary Tryon, a spokeswoman for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, said Tuesday as family and friends mourned his death. “He was born before the turn of the century and lived here all his life. Paul was the one person who remembered the mission before all the restoration work started.”

The Juaneno Indian’s lifelong work centered on Mission San Juan Capistrano. He played in its dusty stables as a child and picked up his first job there in 1908.

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“I remember the first automobile ever seen in San Juan Capistrano,” Arbiso recalled in a 1992 interview. “We kids saw it coming down the road and we started screaming about the horseless buggy.”

Eventually, Arbiso became head gardener for the mission’s famous rose gardens, a job that would remain his passion after retirement at age 93. Even after retiring, he would return to the gardens after Sunday Mass, often clipping roses that he would present to women around downtown San Juan Capistrano.

“His heart was in that beautiful rose garden,” said Msgr. Paul Martin, the mission’s pastor. “He loved them and they certainly loved him.”

As bell ringer, a job he held for more than 60 years, Arbiso would pull on the thick ropes of the mission’s giant iron bells to announce a death or the birth of a child in town. But his fame came on March 19 each year, when media from around the world would assemble to watch for the fabled return of the swallows.

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It was Arbiso’s job to ring the mission bells to symbolize the sighting of the first swallow of spring. He took the job seriously, but he couldn’t help but poke fun at the inevitable reporter who didn’t know the return of the swallows was mostly myth.

“When do you think the first swallow will come?” he was asked one year by a journalist.

“Oh, probably right after Mass,” Arbiso replied, meaning that the first swallow would make an appearance only after he left church and could sound the bells.

Arbiso, whose nickname was “Mocho,” a reference to three fingers he lost in France during World War I, was asked many times over the years about the secret to his longevity. His answer was always the same.

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“I made good clay,” he would reply. The translation was left to friends, who said Arbiso was referring to living a simple, clean life.

“He never got mad or excited,” said Bob Dunn, the historical society’s vice president and a close friend and neighbor of Arbiso. “That’s how you get to 99, never sweat the small stuff.”

Said Cha Cha Bellardes, a distant cousin who works at the mission: “A lot of people looked to Paul as a father. He would go to the Swallows (saloon) and everyone would come up to him and ask questions about the city’s history.”

Martin, who met Arbiso at the mission in 1961, described him as a “wonderful man. He was the best of the community embodied in one person.”

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Arbiso conceded little to the passing years. Until becoming ill in recent weeks, he was a familiar sight downtown, walking to Sunday Mass at the mission or visiting friends.

He maintained a love for an occasional sip of red wine and, of course, gardening, keeping a small vegetable patch that produced corn, squash, beets and radishes.

“We never had a doubt that he would make 100,” said his daughter, Alice Gastelum. “We were going to have a big blowout (on his birthday). But he died a beautiful death, just going to sleep comfortably while we watched.”

The ringing of the mission bells during Swallows Day and other occasions will be left to Arbiso’s grandson, Michael Gastelum.

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The historical society has decided not to name a replacement patriarch for Arbiso or matriarch Evelyne Marie Lobo Villegas--who died in April--until next year.

“We will have an old-fashioned period of mourning,” Dunn said. “It’s a matter of respect.”

Dunn said his enduring memory of Arbiso will be of his friend who, at age 99, rang the mission bells for a final time at Lobo Villegas’ funeral.

“It was the last dramatic thing I saw him do,” Dunn said. “I’ll forever remember him ringing those bells and getting that pattern exactly right. I’ll always remember him as a serene, quiet man whom I came to love very dearly.”

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In addition to his daughter, Arbiso is survived by three grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, seven great-great grandchildren and many other family members.

A rosary will be said at the Mission San Juan Capistrano on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Funeral services, followed by the patriarch’s traditional procession, will be held Saturday, beginning at 9:30 a.m., at Serra Chapel on the mission grounds.


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