Haunted Places: San Juan Capistrano

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Earlier this year, we took a short train ride up the coast from San Diego to Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was a beautiful, cool day and not knowing what we were really going to see, of course we loaded up cameras just in case. What we found was a site rich with history, tourists, interesting stories and beautiful artifacts, annoying tourists, ghost stories, refurbished buildings, tourists, and the ruins of a toppled church.

The town is known for its historical district, centuries-old adobes and a mission that opened in 1776. But it also enjoys a darker side to its history, one cloaked with tragedy, spirits and folklore kept alive through storytelling and a dedicated group of local history buffs who share some of the tales every year in honor of Halloween.

As neither of us did any research on the history of the mission (save only to find the train stop), we had no idea that such ruins existed at the mission site. You can see the top of the structure when walking up the block toward the grounds, yet even as we got closer, I couldn't really believe what I was seeing. I thought for sure it must be some trickery, a fake building, a facade to show the history of the place, and on the inside would be housed a gift shop. And tourists. I have to quickly add that Yes, there are ruins all over the world, of sites and buildings, footprints of the past. As a young nation, having such an actual, still-standing and protected site is fascinating to me. I had never seen anything like this structure and ruins outside of photos or the History Channel.

There were a few signs about the church grounds when we were there, and maybe because I was awestruck at the ruins, I didn't see any information about the church having been completed in 1806 and how the community toiled for nine years to complete it. The great church has been described as "the most important and pretentious building of the whole Mission period..." and was "modeled after the Byzantine cathedrals scattered throughout Europe and Western Asia."

As with most haunted places that make them haunted, tragedy struck the mission on the morning of December 8, 1812, the "Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin", as a series of large earthquakes shook Southern California during the Sunday morning service. The 7.5-magnitude earthquake wrenched the doors to the church shut, trapping everyone within the interior. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the bulk of the nave had come crashing down, and the bell tower was completely destroyed. Forty native worshipers who were attending service, and two boys who had been ringing the bells in the tower, were buried under the rubble. All of these individuals lost their lives.

Different articles I have read say different things, but I believe it took them nearly (or over) a month to dig out from the rubble those who died. The church was ultimately never rebuilt as the padres made no attempt, leaving the church instead in ruins for the entire community to remember the loss. These ruins stand today as a beautiful and creepy testament to tragedy.

So is the place haunted? The answer is Yes, and possibly, no. I don't know. I would like to believe any place that is said to be haunted actually is. I'm pretty sure I've seen a ghost at least once, and had my own experience with a haunting so I am inclined to believe. But since it was daylight and museum operating hours didn't extend to the night time, no ghosts were seen. Ghosts, as one knows, are easier to see at night because they have to plug in their own blacklight to illuminate the white sheets they spook in.

As you can imagine and heard tell, the beginnings of any settlement are, sadly, bloody and violent, and if you believe in the sort of thing, all the tragedy and sadness (such as an earthquake toppling a building with seven-foot thick walls on top of you) can bring a psychic scar onto the land. Mission San Juan Capistrano is a kind of vortex for all these emotional traces and psychic influences, just as any area with such a past can be.

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(At top, an artist's conception of how the mission and church may have appeared. Bottom, a computer rendering of the church footprint and what is actually remaining today. No contemporary drawings or paintings exist which showed the church and what it actually may have looked like. Neither of these drawings show ghost placement, and that's also a shame.)

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 Window at top of transept.

Window at top of transept.

From what I've read in the past months, the tragedy of The Great Stone Church disaster gave rise to its best-loved legend, that of a young native girl named Magdalena who was killed in the collapse. Magdalena lived on the mission grounds and had fallen in love with an artist named Teófilo. Magdalena’s father had ordered her to go to the church that Sunday morning to confess to a priest that she’d met with the young artist, and against her father’s wishes and those of the mission elders, continued to see the young man in secret. On that fateful December earthquake morning, the repentant Magdalena walked ahead of the procession of worshipers carrying a penitent's candle. As the shaking began, young Teófilo rushed into the church hoping to save Magdalena just as the walls and roof tumbled to the ground. When the rubble was eventually cleared the pair were found among the dead, locked in a final embrace. It is told that on moonlit nights you can occasionally make out the face of a young girl, possibly illuminated by ghostly candlelight (or a blacklight), high up in the ruins. I'm unsure why she's way up there by herself, no Teófilo floating with her, but still a very cool story.

Other legends include that of a faceless monk who haunts corridors of the original mission quadrangle, and of a headless soldier who was often seen standing guard about the property (how does he see people coming?) Whatever you believe, at Halloween these legends seem more prevalent and exciting. I'd like to think that of all the souls that perished in the church that day, some are still hanging around, haunting with good vibes, and when necessary, ghost slapping disrespectful tourists.

(At top: Interior of the haunted sacristy. Okay, I have no idea if it's haunted yet the temperature was super cool inside, it was super creepy, and super dark; 2nd photo, a metal wall brace just outside the locked door to the sacristy; 3rd photo, interior of transept area; bottom photo, view of approximate area where bell tower stood and where the two young boys would have died.)

(Tourists, why did it have to be tourists?! Many of them - not these guys - picked at the bricks, climbed on the old walls, and worse. I don't necessarily believe it's a sacred place because church, but c'mon, people, be respectful.)

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You can read more on the mission here on my blog: Right in Our Own Backyard.