IN THE CLASSROOM: A pilgrimage to the mission

Top of the World Elementary School’s fourthgraders got a firsthand look at Mission San Juan Capistrano Wednesday.

The kids took buses down to the historical site, founded in 1776, where docents led them through the mission’s kitchen, graveyard, chapel, and the ruins of the Great Stone Church.

The visit is part of the California 4th Grade Mission Project, an extensive assignment in which public school students learn about the missions’ role in the state.

Tens of thousands of children visit Mission San Juan Capistrano every year.


Dozens of Spanish Catholic missions were established as religious outposts by Franciscans between 1769 and 1823. Their role was to support the colonization of California by indoctrinating Native Americans into the Catholic faith.

Wearing “Passport Explorer” educational guides around their necks, the kids also learned about the legendary swallows of Capistrano; docent Vel Svehla told them the birds often carry twigs in their beaks when crossing bodies of water.

When the swallows grow fatigued, they drop the twigs into the water, where they rest on them until they’re able to fly again.

Kids were also fascinated by the mission’s cemetery, where they learned about the burial customs of the time.


Svehla taught them about Father St. John O’Sullivan, who suffered from chronic tuberculosis. He arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910 and built the mission to its current glory after it was left for ruin.

She also spoke of the Yorba family, whose patriarch José Antonio was buried in the graveyard in exchange for his service to the Spanish empire during the Portola expedition.

Spain granted a swath of land to Yorba that encompassed the area now designated as cities ranging from Orange to Newport Beach.

The graveyard also contains the remains of some 2,000 Native Americans; O’Sullivan erected a large stone memorial to them and is buried before it today.

“He saved the mission,” Svehla told the kids.

Another popular sight was the gold-leaf retablo in the Serra Chapel, the only mission location where Father Junipero Serra was confirmed to have held mass.

Estimated to be 400 years old by Svehla, the retablo (or altar backdrop) was made in Barcelona of nearly 400 pieces of cherry wood.

Imported in 1806, it was originally intended for a Los Angeles cathedral, but went unused until it was installed in San Juan Capistrano in the 1920s.