The Wings of Tradition


For the first time in years, the bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano will ring rather than clunk.

Just weeks before the annual Return of the Swallows festival, which begins Saturday, the bells that have hung since 1796 were replaced with replicas, made from molds of the originals. The historic bells were cracked--hence the nonmusical clunk--and will now go on permanent display at the mission.

Visitors who flock to the mission this weekend to celebrate the return of the swallows will be among the first to hear the crisp clang of the new bells. The noise is unlikely to faze the birds, which have returned to the area religiously for centuries.

"The swallows have probably been coming here since time immemorial," said Jerry Miller, director at the mission. "There's some sort of biological instinct that brings them from Argentina to San Juan Capistrano."

The migration has been reason to celebrate since the 1930s, when media coverage of the returning birds drew national attention--and many more tourists. Today, the event has grown far beyond bird watching, with three days of festivities that also commemorate the 200-year history of the mission.

"This event not only celebrates the swallows but also the people of various cultures," said Jerry Miller, executive director. "We have mariachis from Mexico, Aztec dancers, Native Americans cooking fry bread and storytelling."

For a while in the early 1990s, festival-goers far outnumbered the swallows, because renovation efforts on the mission caused the birds to make a detour. Their fragile mud nests, tucked under the eaves of the Great Stone Church, were damaged or blocked, but the tiny winter residents were eventually enticed back with food and shelter.

"We put up artificial nests, made of ceramics," Miller said. "We put out ladybugs and green lace bugs; that's what they eat."

Matriarch, Patriarch Recall Old Families

At modern-day celebrations, the swallows aren't the only honored guests. Descendants of families that settled the area play a significant role in the festivities, including members of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, whose ancestors helped build the mission.

The matriarch and patriarch of the town, residents who have deep roots in the community, traditionally reign over the celebration. The matriarch, Helen McMullan, is a descendant of the Juanenos, and patriarch Richard Mendelson is the last descendant of a Jewish family that settled here in 1875.

"My grandparents had a hotel here," said Mendelson, 90. "It was the main stop in town, between Santa Ana and San Diego. They sold overalls, boots, hats and long johns."

On Saturday, another bit of San Juan Capistrano history will be revisited when Raphael Rene performs "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." Written by his father, Leon Rene, in 1939, the popular tune was performed by singers such as Bing Crosby and Kate Smith.

On all three days, Saturday through Monday, living-history demonstrations and vendors will fill the mission grounds. Artisans will demonstrate old-time crafts including spinning, weaving, beading, basket weaving and blacksmithing.

Entertainment on Saturday and Monday includes Native American musicians, dancers and performances by groups as diverse as the Anaheim Ballet and Utah's Copper Hills High School.

No entertainment is scheduled for Sunday, but the food and other booths will operate all three days.

On Monday, parish schoolchildren will participate in a procession in the courtyard, led by McMullan and Mendelson. And, of course, guests of honor are expected to fly in throughout the week.

Though birds visit nearly every house in town, Miller said, the mission is still a favorite perch.

"When the mission was built, these buildings were the highest in the area. The town has built up quite a bit, but we're still the highest point in town."


* Return of the Swallows, Mission San Juan Capistrano, 31522 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Saturday through Monday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $6; seniors $5; children $4. Information: (949) 544-1300.

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