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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

San Juan Capistrano is a town steeped in tradition, and whose longtime residents believe in paying tribute to their historic forebearers.

That legacy will continue on Saturday, Nov. 6, when members of the community with ancestral ties to San Juan will gather at Old Mission Historic Cemetery for a memorial Catholic Mass to honor those who came before them. Regional religious officials, including a bishop and priests with historical connections to the land, will be at the memorial.

“We’re gathering to remember our ancestors on this occasion because it’s our 11th annual Mass,” said Los Rios Historic District resident Jerry Nieblas, whose grandparents and other ancestors are buried at the site. “I won’t restrict anybody from coming to this Mass. I don’t believe in the walls. I believe the walls need to come down.”

The Mass will begin at 9:30 a.m. Members of the Juaneño and Hispanic communities have been invited to pay tribute to their ancestors. Old Mission Historic Cemetery is at the end of the private access road by the Chevron gas station on Ortega Highway, blocks from Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“Up until I was even a little boy, they were still digging the graves up here by hand and it sometimes would take them three to four days because the soil up here is adobe,” Nieblas said. “It’s clay. It’s river rock.”

A new statue of Jesus Christ on the cross was recently placed at the cemetery, which Nieblas said is “the heart of the cemetery” and “our pride.”

“I’ve been waiting probably as long as I’ve waited for the altar and pedestals—probably about 20 or 30 years, just ups and downs with the cemetery, just putting it on hold,” Nieblas said. “This year we were fortunate. The San Juan Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee reached out to our public and our membership and asked for donations. We got a good response but, because of one major donor, we were able to finalize the purchase of our Corpus Christi.”

Local Eagle Scout members have helped out with amenities at the cemetery. Oral histories about older generations who lived in what is now San Juan Capistrano have been handed down through generations, Nieblas said.

“They were burying people up here already by the 1830s but there was no real agreement. They had run out of land in San Juan in the Mission area. The families here—we have such a small community—decided they would bury up here,” Nieblas said. “They picked this site carefully, though, following some of our traditions and things that are important to our culture. This land sits in the valley of the two rivers. There’s a river on San Juan Creek and there’s a river on Oso (Road).”

Visitors at the cemetery might also get to see the ocean from the site on a clear day.

“What people don’t realize about this cemetery is it’s the oldest in Orange County, as far as we know. We don’t know anything that’s this old and still in use,” Nieblas said. “This contains the descendants of the original first people of San Juan Capistrano—the native people, then the European Spanish that came, the soldiers. We’re descendants of them. Also, the early Mexicano.”

Familiar names around town, including Forster and Rios, can be spotted on gravestones throughout the cemetery. A reception will be held at the Blas Aguilar Adobe (31806 El Camino Real, by Historic Town Center Park and Camino Real Playhouse) after the ceremony.

“This will never be a cemetery where there will be lawns or sprinkler systems, and that’s because this is what the people want. We consider it very sacred and we consider it very consecrated grounds by the standards of the church,” Nieblas said of maintaining the rustic quality of the cemetery. “When we do bury our people, we still follow the tradition as much as possible. When there’s a Mass at the Mission, we walk them up to the hill when we can.”

Native American and Catholic traditions are mixed in when paying tribute to the dead.

“We try to honor them with song and the tobacco offerings rather than the earth offerings,” Nieblas said. “Ocean water, when it’s appropriate, because of our connection with the ocean. We follow both of those traditions up here now and we respect both of them.”  

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at

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