Chapel Is a Doorway to the Past

Times Staff Writer

There’s a time machine in San Juan Capistrano.

It doesn’t have glass dials or brass gauges marking decades past and future. It bears no on-off switch, no fancy wires.

It will, nonetheless, transport you to a different time.

“It’s beautiful and serene,” says Jim Graves, who has taken the trip many times. “There’s a religious significance to it -- you feel the presence of God. It takes you to the beginnings of civilization and lifestyle as we know it in California.”

Step into Serra Chapel, whose walls witnessed an earlier age. In fact, it was here in this small room, historians contend, that modern California began.


“It’s the county’s oldest church and probably California’s,” says Graves, a spokesman for Mission San Juan Capistrano, on whose grounds the chapel stands. It may be the state’s oldest surviving structure, he says, adding: “It’s the only place we know of in which Junipero Serra actually celebrated Mass” in the U.S.

That would be Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish priest who created the state’s chain of Roman Catholic missions -- including this one, in 1776 -- and is often referred to as California’s founder. His goal was to Christianize the Juaneno Indians who first inhabited this region.

There is some debate regarding when the sanctuary was built. Some believe it was in 1777, the first building completed following the mission’s dedication. Others maintain that the construction wasn’t completed until 1782, the year Serra made his final journey to California two years before his death.

It was on that trip, according to Graves, that the famous priest -- who was beatified in 1987, the second step toward sainthood -- said Mass and performed confirmations in the tiny adobe and wood-beamed chapel.

“He would have been here for several days [at a time] as a visiting priest,” Graves says.

Serra Chapel remained the mission’s primary place of worship until 1806, when the nearby Great Stone Church was completed, then resumed that role six years later, after the big church was destroyed in an earthquake.

In 1891 the roof of the 160-foot-long chapel was declared unsafe, causing the building to be converted into a storage room. Then, in 1922, it was restored by Father St. John O’Sullivan, the mission’s pastor, who, among other things, rebuilt the sacristy. It was also O’Sullivan who installed the spectacular 300-year-old gold-leaf altar imported from Spain.


Worshipers kneel before it at a 7:30 a.m. Mass every day except Sunday, when priests from St. Michael’s Abbey conduct a traditional Latin Mass -- one of only two in Orange County -- at 8:30 a.m. “It’s usually packed,” says mission executive director Mechelle Lawrence, who estimates that an additional 105,000 visitors tour each year.

What makes the place a time capsule, aside from its history, is the art on its walls.

It is a strange mixture of wispy Native American swirls in red and yellow framed by somber portraits of saints depicted in regal Spanish passion. The golden altar at the front of the sanctuary literally glitters in rich Catholic splendor. And the room’s sagging rafters seem to almost drip with the enigmatic symbols of the Juanenos, whose land and culture was long ago assimilated into California.

You feel the power of the place when sitting here alone, at peace with the silent past. And you feel it on Sunday mornings when the pews overflow with people of varying hues united in their love of the Latin heard here for 200 years.

“It’s the greatest privilege to say Mass where a saint once said Mass,” Father John Caronan says following one recent service. “It’s like visiting the Liberty Bell, or George Washington’s house.”

It’s also a cemetery. Few visitors know that three priests are buried beneath the shadow of the Spanish altar. Former mission pastors, they died in the first half of the 19th century when this place was the mission’s shrine.

“I think it’s beautiful,” parishioner Laura Cote says after a recent Sunday Mass. “It’s a very holy place.”

Eileen Spatz, who has been attending Latin Masses here for two years, agrees: “You walk out of here and feel like you’ve been to heaven.”