The modern church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, where Spanish priest Father Junipero Serra first said Mass in 1778, has become a basilica, a site recognized for special religious, cultural and historical significance.
With approval granted by Pope John Paul II in late winter, the church becomes the sixth minor basilica in California and the 46th in the nation. Major basilicas are all in Rome.
The decree from the pope followed a request from the Most Rev. Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Diocese of Orange. Accompanying the application as documentation of the parish's significance was a 100-page book by the diocese archivist, the Rev. William Krekelberg.
"The request was granted immediately because the San Juan Mission is so well-known around the world," said Father Rod Stephens, director of evangelization and adult education for the diocese. "I'm sure there were lots of people who were wondering why it had not been done before."
Mission San Juan Capistrano Catholic Church now joins such well-known places of worship as the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Florida; Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana; and St. Mary's Basilica in Galveston, Texas.
The old mission is well-known partly because of the migrating swallows that for decades nested there in the spring. The priest who led a restoration campaign in 1910 observed that the small birds' annual arrival coincided with St. Joseph's Day, March 19. Thus the legend was born that the swallows always return to San Juan Capistrano on that day, though in fact they may arrive any time in late March. The story captured public imagination, though, and has been drawing visitors to the mission ever since.
Basilica is "a title assigned to certain churches because of their antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as centers of worship," according to the Catholic Almanac.
"When a church is named a basilica, it makes no reference to the look or the size of the actual building," Stephens said. "Being named a basilica honors the importance of the place to the local church."
Mission San Carlos in Carmel, named a minor basilica in 1960, is actually a "teeny" chapel with room for only about 100 people, Stephens said. Because it had historical significance, he said, its size was irrelevant.
Mission San Juan Capistrano Catholic Church, built 13 years ago on the historical mission grounds, holds about 850 people. The original church, Serra Chapel, holds about 150 people and is not open except for a daily 7 a.m. Mass. The new sanctuary, not the old, is the basilica.
"The church in ruin isn't the basilica," Stephens said. "San Juan Capistrano Mission is an active Roman Catholic parish; it's not just ruins or a museum."
He and other diocese officials said they are delighted with the new high-profile designation. "Mission San Juan Capistrano is obviously the premier church in this county," Stephens said.
Serra Chapel, the original wood-beamed church, is one of the oldest buildings in the state. Construction of the sanctuary began in 1797 and was completed about 1810. It was destroyed two years later by a massive earthquake, which leveled the building and killed 40 Juaneno Indians attending services.
The mission is one of nine founded by Father Serra along the California coast. The first of them to become a minor basilica was Mission Dolores in San Francisco, which received the papal designation in 1952.
The San Juan Capistrano church, with membership of 5,500 families, has already seen a surge in attendance from people making pilgrimages, which the pope has asked all Roman Catholics to do this year. Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, seat of the diocese, is its main pilgrimage site. Designated as alternatives are Mission San Juan Capistrano and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in La Habra.
Special insignia will be added to the building in time to celebrate its basilica designation on Oct. 23, the feast day of St. John of Capistrano.
"There are insignias and plaques that need to be signed and crosses that need to be hung over the back doors," said Marilyn Katzmark, parish office manager. "There's a papal crest that also needs to be incorporated into all the keys."
Other official changes, besides adding the papal coat of arms, are the addition of a pavilion and a silver basilica bell to recall those used in papal processions at the Vatican.
The pavilion will be a ceremonial tent with alternating bands of red and yellow silk draped over a wooden frame and crowned with a cross. The colors represent the papal government and the earlier Roman Senate, while the tent symbolizes shelter.
Besides the exterior changes, the church will be renamed, probably "Mission Basilica." That, in turn, will require new stationery, business cards and signs.
"We're already very high-profile because we're a mission, but becoming a basilica adds to the traffic coming through the church," Katzmark said. "It adds to the aura."