Jan Siegel
Jan Siegel. File Photo

This Mother’s Day, remember the women who tended to the conservation of historic San Juan

By Jan Siegel

Last week was National Preservation Week, and Sunday is Mother’s Day. Sometimes the women in our community are overlooked by history, so this seems like a good opportunity to honor two women whom you may not know much about, but who have added greatly to the history of San Juan Capistrano.

On June 29, 1929, Father St. John O’Sullivan paid homage to a woman that history has mostly forgotten. During a speech in Serra Chapel at the Mission to the Orange County Historical Society, he spoke of Mary Magdalena Murillo. She came to San Juan Capistrano in 1886, and from that date until 1929, she came to Serra Chapel every week to place flowers at the altar, sweep the corridors and put the church in order. O’Sullivan said, “She is one of the real characters to which the Mission is indebted for its present preservation.”

Mary Magdalena also kept and repaired the vestments that the priest wore, as she was a professional seamstress. At the time that Fr. O’Sullivan was in town, Magdalena lived at the Avila Adobe where she had her dressmaking business.

The Montanez Adobe, named after Polonia Montanez, is located in the Los Rios Historic District. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Montanez Adobe, named after Polonia Montanez, is located in the Los Rios Historic District. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Magdalena told Fr. O’Sullivan that when she arrived in San Juan Capistrano, it was the year that Fr. Mutt left so there was no priest at the Mission. The Mission was open to anyone, and tourists would go into Serra Chapel and actually put on the vestments that had been left out and prance around in them. Mary Magdalena was outraged and told the tourists that they should be ashamed of themselves. She took the vestments home, made sure that they were properly altered, and put them in the old vestment cases so that they were preserved. Without her efforts, we might not have the old vestments that you can see at the Mission today.

Another woman who has often been overlooked by history is Polonia Montanez. Polonia was married three times, and was subsequently widowed three times. Perhaps she is best known for the folklore about how she had children pray for rain during the 1890 drought. One day, the children walked down to Dana Point praying and chanting. The second day, they walked to Trabuco Canyon. The third day, they walked to Capistrano Beach and it started to rain so hard that wagons were sent to rescue the children and Polonia.

But besides that adventure, Polonia was a known healer. While she likely picked up some medical skills from her third husband, who was a doctor, Polonia also knew about healing with herbs and plants. There are still residents in town who had relatives cured by Polonia. She was also the best known midwife in the town.

In the years without a priest at the Mission, Polonia taught catechism to the children of the community. She had an altar erected on the north side of her home on Los Rios Street.

The Montanez Adobe bears her name and you can spend a ‘Moment in Time’ every Saturday and Sunday visiting the Adobe and hearing the stories of Polonia. She was a woman way ahead of her time.

Remember these two women who have made a difference in preserving the history of this San Juan Capistrano. Although neither of them had any children of their own, they mothered our community.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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