By Rhonda DeHaan

Father St. John O’Sullivan arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1910 and was immediately drawn by its haunting beauty. Saddened by its neglected state, Father O’Sullivan set to work restoring the mission.

Restoration of Serra’s Chapel, so named because it is said that it is the only chapel blessed by Saint Junipero Serra himself, ranked high on Fr. O’Sullivan’s priority list.

The structure had been used to store grain, wool and lumber for many years, and was severely deteriorated. Part of the chapel had collapsed, and the remainder of the building had crumbling walls and a roof which needed extensive repair.

Fr. O’Sullivan engaged the services of Los Angeles architect Arthur B. Benton to supervise the restoration of the building, and together they began the arduous task.

In the early 1920s, after the work was completed, Fr. O’Sullivan visited with Bishop Rt. Rev. John Joseph Cantwell, Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles and San Diego. He wanted permission to go to Mexico in an attempt to find an appropriate altar for the restored church.

The bishop told Fr. O’Sullivan about some boxes that had been shipped to him from Spain in 1906 and had remained in storage since. Upon opening the crates, Fr. O’Sullivan discovered a rare old retablo, carved from solid wood overlaid with gold leaf, and to his great joy, he received permission to move it to San Juan Capistrano.

The retablo was in approximately 395 individual pieces, damaged and tarnished, with several parts missing. Sebastian Maas, a Los Angeles decorator, labored for twelve months, assembling the pieces and replacing the lost parts. He was assisted by John O’Sullivan, nephew of the priest.

Fully assembled, the height of the altar was higher than the chapel’s ceiling, so additional work was required to raise the roof.

Today, this breathtaking retablo remains the centerpiece of the chapel, the beautiful Baroque artwork admired by the mission’s many visitors.

Rhonda DeHaan enjoys learning about San Juan Capistrano and its history, sharing fun photographic finds along the way. She is proud mother of two, a freelance writer and a member of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Board of Directors. She is also serving her eighth year as member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

Editor’s note: A caption for a photo from the early 1900s that accompanies this column has been corrected to note that the photo depicts Serra’s Chapel before a restored retablo was placed inside it. The caption was originally incorrect because of an editing error. 

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