Mission San Juan Capistrano showcases its historical treasures

The crucifix has a bullet wound.

The story goes that around 1900 a man embroiled in a business dispute unloaded his anger — and his pistol — inside a chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Miraculously, no one was hurt. But the 18th century silver cross likely used by mission founder Father Junipero Serra took one near the top.

That the crucifix survived at all is a miracle itself. Generations of carelessness and theft stripped California’s missions of much of their artwork and artifacts.

Photos: Treasures of Mission San Juan Capistrano

This summer, an exhibit at the Orange County mission opens the vault on such rarely seen treasures — restored artwork, rare historical and religious artifacts, and a document signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which returned California’s illegally confiscated missions back to the Roman Catholic Church.

The exhibit, on display through Sept. 5, is the result of a preservation effort, which includes repair of time-worn buildings and the rescue of some 2,000 items that tell the story of the 235-year-old mission.


“We found stuff stored in basements, attics, offices, closets,” said Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, the mission’s executive director. “They didn’t realize what they had.”

The current exhibit showcases some of those items: liturgical vestments worn by Serra himself; hand-forged silver altar pieces; an intricately carved Spanish colonial tabernacle; a wood bell wheel used for generations to celebrate Easter; wood-and-iron chandeliers; a woven Native American basket, hundreds of years old, among a trove discovered in an attic.

Perhaps the most fascinating items come borrowed from Orange County’s Roman Catholic diocese: three leather-bound volumes, which contain baptism, marriage and burial records recorded in flowing script, from the mission’s founding.

Also on display are faded altar cards which hark back to earlier preservation efforts.

The cards were found in 2008, hidden behind reproductions in frames. There was also a note in one written in 1918 by Father St. John O’Sullivan explaining the deception: He had hidden the fragile cards there to save them.

When O’Sullivan arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910, the abandoned mission was in ruins. As the mission’s first modern pastor, O’Sullivan spent more than two decades rebuilding and repairing the ravages of time and neglect.

He brought beatific Serra Chapel back to life, repairing beams, walls and pews. The exclamation point was a soaring floor-to-ceiling carved wood reredos behind the altar that O’Sullivan imported from Spain.

As part of today’s mission restoration, the same oft-painted reredos was stripped and returned to its original gold-leaf glory. The chapel’s pews were taken apart to remove generations of nails and screws, then reassembled using traditional mortises and tenons.

A large painting of the Virgin Mary, more than 220 years old and marred with holes, tears and bird droppings, was removed from a wall where it had been embedded in plaster and restored to its original vibrancy.

The cost to restore Serra Chapel — $1.8 million — would no doubt have left Father O’Sullivan speechless.

“Preservation is an expensive sport,” said Sam U’Ren, preservation project manager for the mission.

That’s just a portion of the $3.3 million raised by the nonprofit Mission Preservation Foundation since 2004 to restore the Capistrano buildings and artwork and curate artifacts in temperature- and light-controlled storage.

The effort grew out of a years-long project to stabilize the ruins of the mission’s Great Stone Church, which was largely destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.

Today, the shored-up half shell of the medieval-looking structure looms over the mission’s grounds — a broken but unbowed survivor of two centuries of neglect.

“The mission belongs to the people of San Juan Capistrano. But it really belongs to the world,” Lawrence-Adams said.

Photos: Treasures of Mission San Juan Capistrano