By Rhonda deHaan
Although the Landmarks Club had successfully preserved what had remained of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1896, much work still needed to be done to restore the site to any resemblance of it’s past glory.
After a chance meeting with a priest from San Juan Capistrano who cared for the town’s parishioners, Father St. John O’Sullivan decided to visit the mission in July 1910. Little did he know the journey that brought him here would lead not only to the restoration of the mission but also his own health.
Father O’Sullivan greatly admired the beauty and grandeur of the mission from the moment he arrived. He was fascinated with the mission and set about learning its history which he recorded in a small book entitled Little Chapters About San Juan Capistrano.
He also lamented the mission’s overwhelming neglect: “How did it come about that the place was left to fall to ruin…?” And, although Father O’Sullivan had been ill for many years, he set forth to rebuild the crumbling mission with his own hands. He requested that he be caretaker of the place and, as he continued to work, his health began to return.
Weeds were cleared, floors were retiled, beams installed, and the dilapidated picket fence was replaced. The list of tasks was long, and funds were low, so beginning on May 9, 1916, Father O’Sullivan imposed an admission fee of ten cents. Although it was initially protested by local residents, admission was later raised to a quarter, and it was with these funds Father O’Sullivan was able to continue his restoration work.
The first record kept of the number of visitors to the mission was in 1916 which indicates that about 5,000 people wandered through the majestic ruins. Seven years later, in 1923, nearly 70,000 visitors paid to gain admission onto the grounds.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people every year can enjoy the mission to learn, be inspired, contemplate its history, and spend a few restful moments within its tranquil walls thanks to the dedicated efforts of one determined priest.