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Mission San Juan Capistrano oldest living California structure still in use

By Catholic Online
November 10th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The sparrows return faithfully to Capistrano, California, every spring, and many of them can be found resting at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The structure stands tall and proud for visitors today, in spite of a series of earthquakes that struck shortly after it was completed in 1806. It is the oldest structure in California still in use today.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The mission was originally consecrated by Father Lasuen on October 19, 1775. Eight short days later, word arrived that a revolt was occurring in San Diego, and that a group of natives had attacked and killed a missionary.

The padres and soldiers buried the bells of San Juan, packed up their things and headed to the fort in San Diego for safety. Father Junipero Serra and other Franciscans returned a year later. The bells were still intact, and so was the cross they had erected at the site. They celebrated mass on All Saints Day, 1776, which is still celebrated as the mission's official day of founding.

In 1796, construction began on a large stone church meant to be the most glorious of all the churches in California. Natives transported stones from a quarry six miles away to build the Great Stone Church, which was constructed in the shape of a cross 180 feet long and 40 feet wide.

At the time of its completion, the tower could be seen for miles. and the bells can be heard from even further away. The church was completed in 1806. However -- six years later, a series of massive earthquakes obliterated the bulk of the church and bell tower. The church had been packed with worshipers, and 42 of the faithful were killed.

Restoration began in the early 20th century. The walls and ceiling were refurbished and strengthened. A beautiful golden altar was installed at the north end. Silent film auteur D.W. Griffith shot the film "The Two Brothers" at San Juan Capistrano, and that movie was the first film ever shot in Orange County. In 1911, silent film star Mary Pickford wed actor Owen Moore in the chapel.

Due to earthquake damage, the World Monuments Fund placed the "Great Stone Church" on its list of 100 Most Endangered sites. Restoration continues and hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the San Juan Capistrano every year.

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