Friday, July 09, 2010

The "Old Mission Cemetery"

I finally stopped to see the Mission Cemetery in San Juan Capistrano the other day. It was hard to find -- tucked away behind an office park -- but it was worth finding.
Most folks think of the cemetery being within the walls of the Mission itself, and indeed there are some early graves there. But according to clerical historian Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, a smallpox epidemic in the early 1860s filled the little church yard to capacity, forcing the expansion to a new cemetery atop a hill about 3/4 of a mile to the east. (Strangely, however, there are earlier burials at this site, beginning with the 1847 grave of one of the Forster children.)
It is this second cemetery that we visited this week. It's located near what is now the intersection of the Ortega Highway and Rancho Viejo Rd. It is a mishmash of unidentified graves with simple white wood crosses, hand-lettered grave markers made of every material imaginable, simple modern memorial plaques, and a few larger, more elaborate monuments. Big old trees provide shade. It is not open to visitors, but you can look through the fence.
Only families with direct ties to the Mission's history can be buried in this cemetery, which is now called the "Old Mission Cemetery." Look around and you'll see the names of Californios, pioneers, and Juaneno Indians. Until very recently, the families were not charged for burials here.
The Diocese of Orange took over this place, in April 2010, fired the guy who'd been in charge, and started charging for burials. At the same time, it was announced that space was running out. Perhaps as few as 10 spaces were still available. Perhaps none. The cemetery was closed, beginning in May, until it could be determined how much space might remain.
Next time you're in Capistrano, visiting the Mission or the downtown shops, be sure to cross over the I-5 Freeway and visit the Old Mission Cemetery as well. It's yet another fascinating symbol of Orange County's deep roots.
(Some historical details in this post come from Pamela Hallan Gibson's book, Dos Cientos Anos En San Juan Capistrano.)


Connie Moreno said...

WOW! Thanks so much for this info!!! I have to go check it out as soon as humanly possible!

Joanne Kennedy said...

I have been here before and was unable to get in. Is it now open? I would love to be able to walk around and pay my respects.

Please let me know.


Arianne said...

How do you get in? I'd love to know as well, since I found it awhile ago and couldn't figure out where an entrance was.

Chris Jepsen said...

No, it is not open to the public. I just shot photos over and through the fence.

The Diocese of Orange folks at Ascension Cemetery are now in charge of the place, so you might call and ask them: 949-837-1331.

Daveland said...

Great info, Chris - thanks!

Jerry said...

Great post! Years ago I was allowed to check out the interior. Lots of abalone and other shells throughout, perhaps midden material?

The small Magnolia Memorial Park in Garden Grove is also an interesting place. According to the caretaker established in 1876, several Civil War veterans are buried there.

Jerry said...

The Old Mission cemetery is also referenced in the book Capistrano Nights by Charles Saunders and Fr. John O'Sullivan. Claims the first burial on the hill was one Guillermo Quinto, a notorious drunkard whom the padres refused Christian burial in the Mission Cemetery proper.

After the smallpox epidemic hit, the hill was consecrated for the many burials to come. According to local tradition, this gave Guillermo his chance to finally rest in holy ground.

Melodye Shore said...

Thanks so much for bringing hidden treasures to our attention via your blog. When I visited the cemetery a short time ago, I was deeply moved by the many ways in which early Californians honored their ancestors--and paid tribute to our common heritage.

I've posted a few photos here:

Anna said...

Anna Terrazas: My son and I, went to old Mission cemetery. upon my mother's passing, I need to visit my little bother. He passed away in 1963. There is a sign on the fence, directing visitor's to the Mission Office for the key to get in. It was like going back in time.

Anonymous said...

You have to get the key from the Mission at the front counter where you'd pay to go in. My grandparents, uncles, and aunts are all buried there.

Juan said...

Can visitors obtain the key despite not having relatives buried there?

Unknown said...

I like to just jump over the fence

Unknown said...

This is very interesting Since I am a Californiono and have family from the leather jacket soldiers. buried there.

R. Llamas said...

My Aunt Theresa Llamas is buried there since 1937.

Unknown said...

I visited this amazing cemetary on Sunday, August 25, 2019. Best access is off a narrow paved driveway across from the Shell gas station, at the intersection of I-5 and Ortega Highway The gate at the top of the curved driveway was open, as some grounds maintenance was taking place. I was able to walk around with no interruption.
Many unmarked graves, as well as memorial markers dated from mid 1800's to mostly early 1900's. These people had short life spans!

Donald Betz / Laguna Niguel, CA

Unknown said...

Donald I don't appreciate you posting the directions on how to get there. It is Private Property and should be reserved for the families of those interred within. Shame on you!