Mission San Juan Capistrano celebrates historic St. Joseph’s Day and the return of the swallows

Mission San Juan Capistrano with a U.S. flag and California poppies.
Mission San Juan Capistrano will ring its historic bells to honor Saint Joseph and the return of the swallows.
(Courtesy of Mission San Juan Capistrano)

On March 19, the gates of Mission San Juan Capistrano will open at 9 a.m., and the bells will ring to honor St. Junipero Serra, the mission’s founder. The day marks the return of migrating cliff swallows, an indication of the advent of spring, and St. Joseph’s Day, a liturgical feast day recognized in the Catholic Church.

“We are happy to serve as the city’s unofficial ambassador on the world-stage promoting and celebrating the 250-year tradition and unique identity of this community,” said Mission San Juan Capistrano Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams.

Mission San Juan Capistrano started the tradition of celebrating the return of the swallows in the 1920s, when then-resident priest Father St. John O’Sullivan wrote the legend of the swallows on St. Joseph‘s Day.

O’Sullivan served as the church pastor from 1910 to 1933, and it was during that time he is said to have witnessed a shopkeeper destroying the adobe-like nests cliff swallows make their home in. The story goes he scolded the shopkeeper and invited the swallows to instead build their nests under the eaves of the mission, where they would be undisturbed. The legend even inspired a chart-topping song, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” in the early 1940s.

Children participate in Return of the Swallows festivities at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
(Courtesy of Mission San Juan Capistrano)

Orange County residents love a good bird legend (look up the story of the Santa Ana parrots), but it is true that each March, cliff swallows make their annual migration from Argentina to the south Orange County mission. The 6,000-mile journey to California is one of the longest migrations of any species.

Mission San Juan Capistrano has scheduled a series of events to celebrate the longstanding tradition that include a virtual presentation by a well-known swallows expert, Dr. Charles R. Brown. The ornithologist famously helped guide birds back to the mission when their population dropped due to city development in the early 2000s. His advice for getting the swallows back included releasing insects for the birds to eat, broadcasting recordings of their mating call and replicating nests to recreate their habitat.

The event will also feature musical performances from Mariachi Tapatio, a performance of ancient folklore dance by Duende Flamenco, Native American basket-weaving demonstrations and local food and craft vendors.

A Native American demonstration at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows celebration includes Native American demonstrations at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
(Courtesy of Mission San Juan Capistrano)

Guests can join Adams for a tour at 2 p.m. or explore the mission on their own, which features a “Legacy of Saint Serra” exhibit and a St. Joseph’s Table display honoring St. Joseph to feed those less fortunate.

“Traditions that bring us together help build a community,” said Adams. “San Juan Capistrano is proof that traditions like the return of the swallows is how to build a fabric of a very unique and special place.”

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