A few weeks ago - on the Sabbath - a dear friend to this apartment, and Virgil and I, made pilgrimage to San Juan Capistrano. Thinking it was a longer journey than it is, we packed a lunch, and left at 8:30 a.m. The day was cool, and the sun had to filter its way through white clouds; the ocean breeze was full of "ozone" - a perfect day for travel. The drive along the ocean is always exhilarating. Even on the calmest of days the great Mother Pacific sends her children, the little white-capped waves, dashing in to embrace the shore - and then dash back again, to let their sisters have a turn. We passed the Belmont Pier, where the deep-sea fishing boats put out to sea with their ever-hopeful anglers. There are lovely little bays along the coast, inviting all kinds of sail boats. The most pretentious of them is Newport Bay, where the wealthy keep their private yachts, sail boats, and outboard motors. Balboa Beach is lovely. It is really an island. Very swanky and exclusive. Bette Davis has a home there. Between Balboa and Laguna Beach are great rock promontories and palisades. We just had to stop and marvel at the wonder and beauty of nature. Laguna Beach! Nowhere south of Santa Barbara are there such flower beds. Laguna is hilly. At least her hills rise right out of the sea. But what a riot of color! Not only in gorgeous flowers - but colorful pottery. For Laguna Beach is the mecca for artists - especially in ceramics.
About 41 miles south of Long Beach - and 2 miles from Laguna - we left the coastal highway, and wound our way up a lovely valley, with those softly rounded hills on every side. We saw acre upon acre of old walnut groves and citrus orchards. Nestled down in this sheltered spot - about three miles from the coast - is what is often called the "Jewel of the Missions," for it is said that, architecturally, San Juan Capistrano has been the most beautiful of all the missions. Only the crumbling ruins remain - and your imagination fills in the rest. To me the great beauty of these ancient missions lies in their great corridors of arches. Somehow, it's the faithful adherence to, and repetition of, the arch - even in the windows - that strikes the esthetic chord in one's soul. At Capistrano, in the center of the ancient quadrangle, is one of the loveliest flower gardens I have ever seen. Old-fashioned flowers - marigolds, calendula, snapdragons, California poppies, delphinium - many I cannot name - and roses. You never saw such roses - unless you have been to California. Snow-white pigeons, very friendly, with an amazing capacity for wheat, remove all sense of melancholy from the scene. Everybody seemed to buy the little five-cent bags of grain - to entice the pretty birds, many of whom are very tame. One plump fellow took a fancy to our friend, Irma, and hopped from her hand to her forearm, and then to her shoulder. Try as I would, I could not persuade any to favor me thus. I was really jealous of Irma and her "allure." Then, perhaps just to satisfy my ego, I discovered that they seemed to favor dark-haired people. Irma's hair is jet-black, her eyes, dark brown. Some young people of swarthy skin and Latin blood seemed to draw them like magnets. Is it because the Spanish priests were always so kind to the little creatures?
Lovely green ivy adorns the ancient walls, as if to hide the marks of decay. The red tile roofs stand out in contrast to the walls, brown with age. The playing fountains, the clear pools, and the exquisite water lilies added much to the beauty of the scene. They say that the oldest building at Capistrano, and probably in the entire state of California, is the chapel, brought from Barcelona, Spain. It contains an elaborately carved altar, made of Spanish cedar, and entirely covered with gold leaf. It fills one end of the chapel, from floor to ceiling, and from wall to wall. They hold this chapel in great reverence, for once the beloved Father Junipero (pronounced Yu-NI-pair-o) Sierra, the founder of these missions, officiated there. No one of unbiased mind could help but revere the memory of so godly and courageous a man. Many of the adobe buildings have crumbled away, but there still remain the tanning pits, the smelting pits, the great grinding stones with which they ground their grain into meal and flour. All these and many smaller relics attest to the industry and resourcefulness of the early padres.
In 1806, after nine years of arduous labor by the neophytes, the stately church in the shape of a cross completed the quadrangle of the mission. It was fashioned of stone, brought by oxen and in nets on the backs of Indians - from a quarry five miles back in the hills. Even women and children carried smaller stones in sacks and in their aprons, to help fill in the cracks and crevices. On December 8, 1812, only six years after its completion, while worshipers were attending the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a severe earthquake tumbled the heavy roof and tower upon them, killing 39 of their number, and laying the lovely church in ruins - from which it has never been rebuilt. But a curious thing has happened. Although there have not been enough human beings with selfless zeal to raise the money for a new church, God's little winged messengers have kept alive the glory that was Capistrano. When the mission was being built, over 160 years ago, there arrived a flock of barn swallows, which found hospitality only at the hands of the kindly padre, who allowed them to build their nests under the mission's sheltering caves. Ever since that time, with two exceptions, the birds have returned on Saint Joseph's Day, March 19 - and have left on San Juan's Day, October 23. No one knows whence or whither. On the night of August 9, 1939 the swallows vanished. No one saw them go, nor was able to explain their early departure. Then, this year they came back four days early. No one knows why. The dear little creatures built tiny mud nests right in the cornice of the stone ruins of the famous church. Apartment fashion, the entrances are like a miniature hornet's nest, except for the opening, which is about three quarters of an inch in diameter. The swallows are very shy. We saw only one, tiny and swift and darting. Outside of the humming bird, they are the swiftest bird on wing.
All infidels and agnostics should listen to the message of God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence through His tiny messengers, the Swallows of Capistrano.
Florence B. Taylor.
New address: 447 W. Sixth St.,
Long Beach 2, Calif.
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