By Collin Breaux | Email: cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com | Twitter: @collin_breaux

A dispute between Mission San Juan Capistrano leadership and the Mission Docent Society has resulted in the docent organization being removed from volunteer services at the Mission.

The Docent Society was reportedly dissolved in September, with disgruntled members saying Mission San Juan Capistrano Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams was involved in the dissolution. For years, Docent Society volunteers had given tours at the Mission and had volunteered in other ways.

As of a recent count, 30 of the 99 touring docents had resigned or had chosen not to respond to whether they’re still actively volunteering, according to Karen Kirby, a former Docent Society Education Committee member.

Maria Salcido-Nelson, who was an active touring docent for six years, said the Docent Society has helped the Mission.

 “The Society has always served to educate, inform and guide the children that came to learn about Mission life,” Salcido-Nelson said. “We have served the Mission as a Society for over 38 years. It’s with a heavy heart that the camaraderie and love for the Mission and children has been tarnished.”

Adams said disgruntled Docent volunteers “want to run the Mission rather than serve the mission of the Mission,” saying the Mission is focused on its preservation, Christmas programming, education efforts, serving low-income students and other goals.

“Despite being a historic place, however, we all need to change how we do things from time to time. I do not think length of time doing something is an acceptable excuse to not change,” Adams said. “Length of time doing something wrong, in other words, doesn’t validate behavior that can be better or more impactful or more inclusive.

“I wish we could make everyone happy, but we can’t. There’s just a lot of other important things that we can be doing for the betterment of the community than being mired in outdated notions of history and representation.”

Adams said she respects everyone’s past contributions, but the Mission is a professional organization “trying to do the right thing for the good of all,” and if disgruntled volunteers “got on board, there would be no issue.”  

The matters raised by disgruntled docents were “disruptive, personal, petty grievances,” and the Mission does not discuss personnel matters, Adams said.

Helen Gavin, a member of the Docent Society for 32 years, said the Docent Society and its members never wanted to run the Mission and that the aim of the Society was educating and informing visitors about Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“The docents have been more than willing to change, as that is how the Society has lasted for 38 years,” Gavin said. “It is not a question of making ‘everyone happy,’ but it is the poor and what I believe to be disrespectful treatment of the majority of the Mission’s volunteers that has caused docents to present their concerns.”

Docent Society member Peg Hyland said there has been talk of members still working in other ways.

“There are other places to be a docent,” Hyland said. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

The Docent Society had its own charter and bylaws, Docent Society members said.

Adams said the Docent Society was never independent of the Mission. Student field trip tours are continuing uninterrupted, and the Mission has more than 200 other volunteers, Adams said

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comments (2)

  • This had to happen sooner or later. I was a docent about the time Adams came aboard the Administration. Her “management style? was clearly dictatorial and very uncomfortable. From “Padre Gate” to dictating what docents could/couldn’t say about the historical figures important to the story of the Mission, especially for the 4th Graders, was oppressive to the docents who had made a major effort to research and learn about. The docents receive no pay for their service and must pay for their own uniforms…..it is truly a “mission” in and of itself. She wanted to change everything, and in that quest, destroyed many historical installations at the Mission that could have been preserved. Her ‘mission’ seemed to try to make some sort of theme park, like Disneyland, out of this wonderful place.

  • I like the Mission, and have visited for years on annual trips from Rhode Island to SJC. But the Mission’s history is hardly non-controversial –founded by a saint, who built it with indigenous slave labor. That’s a pretty explosive combination.

    The clash behind this article seems to be interesting, but I can’t tell much, other than that the executive director and the volunteers seem to despise each other. What’s the problem?

    It could be that there is nothing here other than very poorly managed conflict over petty personal disputes. But if there is something bigger here — such as clashes over how to portray the history of such a complex institution and man — then we need more details to understand it.

    Did the volunteers actually want to run the Mission? That seems awfully far fetched. Did the volunteers do their own reading and research about the place, providing varied and conflicting stories to visitors? Considering how varied and conflicted the history of the place actually is, that seems plausible. But why would that precipitate such a crisis?

    I’d like to see more articles. If the root of this is just a bad manager, unable to resolve workplace animosities, that’s one thing, but if the root is conflicting ideas over who and what Serra and the Misssions were, that is a very worthy topic for community discussion.

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