By Rhonda DeHaan
Father St. John O’Sullivan arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1910 and soon took on the arduous work of restoring the town’s neglected mission. The grounds were full of weeds and debris, but the pastor dedicated himself to cleaning up and returning the gardens back into a lush landscape.
Inspired by the famous gardens of Spain, particularly that of the Alhambra, Fr. O’Sullivan had flowering trees and shrubs brought by ships from around the world.
The grounds began to fill with color, the dilapidated structures were refurbished, and more and more visitors arrived to revel in the Mission’s renewed splendor.
While the mission had been seducing artists for years, the fresh brilliance of the grounds lured members of a growing group of California Impressionist painters. These plein-air artists were drawn by the vibrant colors they found at the Mission, inspired by its timeless beauty, and they stayed to enjoy the generous hospitality of its devoted caretaker.
Fr. O’Sullivan was a great admirer of art. He encouraged the artists to paint the mission gardens and often invited them to stay as his guests. Many of these painters were recurrent visitors, and in return for the padre’s kindness, a number of them gave him gifts of their paintings.
Among these works is an oil painting by Charles Percy Austin that depicts silent-screen actress Mary Pickford. Her first trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano was to film the D.W. Griffith movie Two Brothers. When she returned some years later, she celebrated the renewal of her wedding vows to actor Owen Moore.
The ceremony was performed by Fr. O’Sullivan, and the ensuing scene in the lush oasis of the mission courtyard is the subject of Austin’s painting. This oil-on-canvas underwent conservation in the 1980’s and remains part of the mission’s collection to this day.