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Capistrano History

a vintage photo of a group of people standing in front of a house

Death and disease and the start of San Juan Capistrano’s semi-secret resting place

by Charles Spratley, Haunted OC

For those guests that have taken our Ghost Walk of San Juan Capistrano, I spoke briefly of the history of the cemetery near the Serra Chapel on the Mission grounds. I even spoke of the main cemetery across the 5 freeway. This quiet, private cemetery is intertwined with the dark and intriguing history of the town itself.

I found the origin of this cemetery in a wonderful book on San Juan, Capistrano Nights which was written by Charles Francis Saunders and Father St. John O’Sullivan which was published in 1930, three years before Father O’Sullivan passed.

The first grave at the top of the hill looking over the quiet pueblo was Guillermo Montalvar, a bitter half Spanish, half Juaneno poet who was known for his bawdy lyrics and his foul behavior brought about by excessive drinking. And when he was found dead without receiving sacraments, the priest refused to have him buried in the small cemetery near Father Serra’s chapel. His friends carried him to the top of small hill not far away and marked his grave with a simple wooden cross. This solitary cross became a warning to children from mothers to what happens if you stray too far from the Lord and cannot be buried in el campo santo, or Holy Ground.

And then in 1862 came the smallpox. The grave diggers were constantly busy. They worked from sun up to sun down trying to respectfully bury the dead without becoming victims themselves to the highly contagious disease. Up to nine were recorded dying in a day. So many, that they stopped ringing the church bells to signify the passing, for they would ring all day. Not a house in San Juan was unaffected. They could not lay the bodies so close to the pueblo, in fear of the pox, and so chose the hill where lonely Guillermo lay. So wily Guillermo finally got buried in holy ground.

Years later, the Mission cemetery was finally full and so it was decided to continue pueblo burials at the crude cemetery at the top of the hill. As the years passed, the grave markers became more ornate and wooden crosses would be seen surrounding beautiful stone markers of the wealthier townsfolk. And like other famous Mission stories there are tales of buried treasure in the old cemetery. I found an article dating back to the 1930s in which mysterious sounds were heard during the night on the burial hill, only in the morning to discover a large hole had been dug up and whatever was buried there missing. The only clue left behind was some horn-rimmed spectacles.

Up until very modern day, it was free to be buried here, until 2010 when it was taken over by the Diocese of Orange The cemetery is full and not open to the public. The only way one can visit the graves of the pioneers of this small town is to be a descendent and you have to be let in by an employee of the church. Old Mission Cemetery as it is now called is a wonderful glimpse into the history of San Juan Capistrano. For all that know me, the best way to study the history of the past…is through the stories of the dead.