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Jan Siegel By Jan Siegel

The good news about San Juan Capistrano is that many generations of residents stay in our community. The bad news is that many generations of our residents stay in this community. As a result, we have a number of elderly family members living in our town—and, unfortunately, as they age, they also pass away, but we are left with their legacy.

Earlier this year, we lost Ilse Byrnes. She was 94. She had lived in San Juan Capistrano for over 60 years. As we celebrate National Preservation Month, it is important to remember the legacy left by Ilse that will endure forever. Keeping Los Rios Street as the oldest neighborhood in California is just one of her accomplishments. 

In April, we lost another longtime resident who made a difference in our community by reminding of us of our farming history and how influential the Basque Community is to our town history and culture. Marie Lacouague passed away at the age of 98. She had lived in San Jun Capistrano for 71 years. 

Marie was born near the Spanish border in the French Basque country. In 1939, Hitler invaded France and soldiers took up residence in Marie’s home for the next four years. It was not a happy childhood. After the war, Eugenia Oyharzabal, a San Juan Capistrano resident, returned to her hometown to visit her relatives and brought her daughters Carmen and Terry along. Marie and Carmen met and became friends.

When an uncle who had immigrated to California offered to sponsor Marie to come to the United States, he did not have to ask twice. She was more than happy to leave her troubled country.   Although Marie was fluent in three languages—French, Spanish, and Basque—she did not speak English, so upon her arrival in California, the uncle paid for her to go to school to learn English.  It was a Catholic all-girls school. The nuns who taught French in the school were not very good, so Marie was able to help them teach French to her fellow students. In turn, they helped her to quickly learn English, which she did. 

Once she was able to speak English, she worked as a housekeeper for the Moulton family. She came down to San Juan Capistrano to visit her friend Carmen Oyharzabal, and it was during those visits that she met Jean Lacouague, whose father coincidently had come from the same village as Marie. Jean had already taken over the running of his family ranch and became a citrus farmer.  Jean and Marie were married in Serra Chapel in 1951. They had four children: Daniel, Michelle, Denise and Renee. 

Besides caring for her immediate family, Marie fed and supported the workers on the farm. She and Jean lived in the same house that Pierre Lacouague had built in 1933. When the Lacouagues sold the farm in 1974, the family retained five acres on the “home-hill,” which included the family home. Jean passed away in 2008, but Marie continued to stay in the house. In 1998, Jean and Marie Lacouague were named Grand Marshals of the Swallows Day Parade as a testament to what they had done for San Juan Capistrano. In her later years, Marie enjoyed her eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  

Spend a “Moment in Time” reflecting on all the special people in your family and think about how much richer our community is because Ilse Byrnes and Marie Lacouague called it home.   

Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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