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First Mass In Newly-Restored Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano has had restoration work done numerous times over the years to keep it from collapse, and the tiny colonial church re-opened this week to its first mass since the extensive renovation started almost two years ago.

It was a big undertaking -- more work needed to be done than with any of the other mission restorations -- but San Juan was about to collapse. Its buttresses struggled to restrain the cracking walls, and the ground was giving way.

"The most important project that we had to do with San Juan, which we did not have to do with Concepción or San Jose, was to stabilize the building," said Father David Garcia, archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions.

Restoring inside and out

The cracks were so bad that they could no longer be disguised and they had to first install pier and beam support to remove the buttresses. Architects had to devise a different solution for the church’s exterior.

"The finish was in bad shape because of the movement of the walls that we stabilized," said Carolyn Peterson with Ford, Powell and Carson, who were the architects in charge of the project.

The exterior, which used to be a mottled gray, was returned to the white, limestone plaster surface, the original appearance of its colonial beginnings.

"Usually the color of almost any building that was done with plaster was lime and sand, and so the color of whatever sand is around will affect the plaster," Peterson said. "So that’s where the difference is. You get whites, and in New Mexico, you get all kinds of color of the Earth."

Respecting the past

"The other thing that happened in the process of doing all of the digging -- right outside this front door on both sides -- we found 15 sets of remains of Native Americans," Garcia said.

Garcia said human remains have been found at the missions in the past, and this time the church wanted to make sure that the forefathers of the area residents were treated with the respect they deserved. 

With a smaller and simpler retablo than San Jose, San Juan Capistrano has a unique personality and style all its own.

Parishioners began to file into the little church with guitars and other instruments to celebrate their first mass in the restored San Juan. An altar boy carrying his cassock on a hangar stops to appreciate the serenity in the new meditation room.

Garcia said the renovated church resonates a new kind of peace.

"Because that was one of the things the Archbishop wanted. He wants the missions to be more spiritual, as well as for tourists. He wants, he wants a balance," Garcia said.

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.