Circa 1899 (Photocrom picture by William Henry Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
And it had been a few years since any swallows had been sighted during their annual migration (6000 miles from Argentina), though it's the story of the swallows that has made Mission San Juan Capistrano so legendary.
I thought that maybe without the swallows, this Southern California mission wouldn't be worth the visit.
But it turns out that not all missions were created equal.
And I didn't have to wait that long for the return of some swallows—maybe not as many as the padres once saw in the past, but definitely plenty to write about.
Mission San Juan Capistrano wasn't the first of the California missions to be built—in fact, it was the seventh.
But, first consecrated in 1776, it's the site of the oldest California building still in use.
And that makes it the oldest of the missions that's still standing (since California's first mission, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, is essentially a replica with very little original structure remaining).
And the story of this mission is the same as the others—the Spanish conquistadors coming to claim the territory for Spain, working with Franciscan padres to convert the natives from their savage, heretical ways to European manners and Christian values.
But the mission system only lasted about 30 years—and by 1834, Mexico had won its independence from Spain and decided to dismantle the missionary effort and secularize the Spanish outposts.
That meant that the most staggering structure on the mission campus, the "Great Stone Church," was never rebuilt after collapsing in the 1812 earthquake.
It continued to languish as California was ceded to the United States and officially became a state in 1850.
Preservationists petitioned for the missions to be returned to the Catholic Church, and LA's own Charles Lummis led the efforts on behalf of The Landmarks Club.
That's probably one of the reason why several of its monumental bells are original and not reproductions.
And the preservation of the Great Stone Church as a living ruin is probably one of the reasons why the swallows came back.
They've got plenty of places to roost and nest in its many crevices and crevasses.
Under the eaves of the dormitories, though, you can see one active nest...
...outside of the Serra Chapel, and just around the corner from the "Swallows Viewing Station"...
...which actually doesn't house any real swallows nests at all.
You might think that the return of the birds is by some miracle...
...or divine intervention...
...but actually it's been carefully strategized.
In 2015, an artificial arch was built with man-made nests mounted on it to entice the swallows to come back, since the birds typically prefer to reuse existing nests rather than painstakingly building new ones (a process that basically involves vomiting up little beads of mud).
That same year, the mission started piping an artificial swallow siren song through a sound system to try to lure them back.
And it appears to have worked.
At the Living Coast Discovery Center, Chula Vista, July 2017
According to the now-infamous story, when their nests were being swept away by a shopkeeper annoyed with the mess that they were making, a priest who'd been passing by declared that there was plenty of room for them at the mission, where they would be welcome to build their nests and lay their eggs.
So, I guess whether or not the Cliff Swallows choose to roost there on any given year, we've sent a clear message to them—visually, musically, and spiritually—that we'll wait for them with open arms and hearts until they come back to us.
Excavating the Ruins
Photo Essay: Faces at California's First Mission