The other day, I went to Mission San Juan Capistrano. If you don’t know the mission story, it goes something like this: when Spain first explored California, they were unimpressed. There were no apparent resources to exploit, the climate seemed wholly unsuited to agriculture, and the natives were barely scratching out an existence. Spain used the coast as a stopping point on their trans-Pacific trade route, but completely ignored the interior for a couple centuries.

Then they started to fear English encroachment on their claimed territory. And it’s not like those claims were well mapped out or anything, so it seems totally reasonable. They started building the missions to set up a permanent military presence along the length of the state, from San Diego all the way past San Francisco. They were spaced regularly along El Camino Real a day’s horseback ride from one another.

The missions were supposed to be self-sufficient after a year, but few Europeans wanted to move to the uncivilized hinterlands. Fortunately for the Spanish, there were natives to exploit! Basically forced into slave labor, the natives built and maintained the missions, farmed fruits and vegetables and raised cattle, and crafted items for sale and export, all under the guise of religious “salvation”.

(One of the forges used for smelting iron in the mission “industrial center”. Not pictured are stoves for rendering tallow, vats for tanning leather, and crushing and fermentation vats for the winery.)

Mission San Juan Capistrano is famous for a few things: it was the only mission built in what would become Orange County, it has the only building still standing where Junipero Serra said mass, and of course, it’s where the swallows come back from their wintering grounds.

(I think this is a swallow. It wouldn’t hold still long enough for me to get a good picture.)

(This is definitely a swallow nest. I don’t know who’s watching it on that camera!)

Some of the significant dates in the life of the mission intersect with American history. It was founded in 1776. By 1833, Mexico was independent of Spain, and several ranchos had been established in California. Mexico decided it wanted to aggressively colonize (Alta) California, and decided to pay for it by “secularizing” the missions, selling them to private interests. Mission San Juan Capistrano fell into a sad state of disrepair.

After California became a state, the missions became Federal property. Returning the mission to the ownership of the Catholic church in 1865 was one of the last official acts of Abraham Lincoln’s life. The site went through an extensive restoration project in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

(16th century Spanish altar added to the Serra chapel during the 1920’s restoration.)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of my visit that I found the most interesting parts of the mission. This is what remains of the Great Stone Church. It was finished in 1806 and destroyed in 1812 by an earthquake that killed 42 people.

I started looking closely at the stones used to build the walls. Most of them were a nondescript tan sandstone, although in this picture it came out more gray for reason.

A good percentage were a beautiful red sandstone.

Interspersed among those, though, were some real beauties. Including fossils…

…beautiful quartzes…



…and pegmatites?…

…and some metamorphic lovelies.


Doesn’t that last one just take your breath away? Each of those layers represents some major change in the environment of that rock’s home. And then it was somehow compressed by unimaginable forces and recrystallized into this objet d’art.

Unfortunately, I had only made it about one quarter of the way around the perimeter of the church when I got kicked out by security because it was way past closing time. I was also getting quite sunburnt and nothing short of marshal intervention was going to stop me from getting blisters at that point.