Monday, October 1, 2012

Mission Quest

Deborah Downes, Kim Bullock's mother, is filling in for Kim today with a special guest post about visiting San Juan Capistrano, one of the old Spanish missions in California. Capistrano is a setting in Kim's recently completed novel, The Oak Lovers. Her protagonist (and ancestor) Carl Ahrens, also plays a key role in this post. Deborah is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, TX, and she is currently writing a memoir about the two times she lived in China.

Carl Ahrens
In 2000, while my husband Fred and I lived on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, we went to Petra to see the birthplace of Father Junipero Serra. There we learned he was not only founder of nine of the twenty-one California missions, but considered the Father of California and its first citizen. Mission San JuanCapistrano is the seventh in the chain of missions he established. Though interested in Father Serra’s childhood home, we were most drawn to the models of the California missions within the local museum. Among them we saw those that represented a segment of our family’s history.

During 1906 popular author George Wharton James commissioned Carl Ahrens (Fred’s grandfather), a renowned Canadian artist and a Roycrofter, to paint all of the California missions. He intended to use the work as illustrations in one of his books on those Spanish sanctuaries. Carl, though periodically crippled throughout his life by a tubercular hip, set out to paint the missions, traveling by covered wagon with a woman he’d nicknamed Madonna for her timeless beauty. Madonna (Fred’s grandmother) was an artist in her own right and, though young enough to be Carl’s daughter, she was his soul-mate, source of strength and inspiration.

The San Francisco earthquake bankrupted George Wharton James, and Carl’s commission was cut short. He made it to seventeen missions, including San Juan Capistrano, Madonna’s favorite. They arrived at Mission Capistrano about eleven years following the start of basic restoration on that crumpling sanctuary and four years before Father O’Sullivan settled there and passionately began restoring it to its former glory, using original construction methods and materials.

Photo by Deborah Downes
I first visited Mission San Juan Capistrano in 2009. I entered the sanctuary with the hope of capturing through photos and written word our family’s ties associated with this historical treasure. First I framed a shot of a series of old arches and pilasters bathed in morning light. Just as I pressed the shutter release button halfway, I shivered, though it was one of those ideal California days. Despite no documented proof, I suddenly felt certain I stood where Carl, who one leading art critic of his day claimed created trees so real they exhale the very smell of the earth, had and captured a view he painted back in 1906. For a moment my mind’s eye saw a shadow of him against the old wall beside me. The darkened shape clearly reflected his tall lean frame, a profile of his chiseled features, a lock of his thick wavy hair dancing against his forehead as he vigorously applied paint to a canvas.

Photo by Deborah Downes
While I stood within the central courtyard of the mission I again pictured Carl painting. This time I imagined him dipping a brush into his signature shade of cerulean blue as I photographed a woman adding paint to a canvas depicting the corner section of the enclosure with part of The Old Stone Church peeking above the rooftops of the mission’s south wing and that of Serra Chapel.

Constructed in 1777, Mission Capistrano’s Serra Chapel is the oldest building in California and the only standing church where Father Serra said mass. Chances are when Carl and Madonna saw this beloved place of worship it was used as a storeroom, as it had been when Father O’ Sullivan arrived in 1910. The present gift shop housed the mission’s chapel between 1891 and 1920. Through Father O’Sullivan’s direction and hard work by 1922 Serra Chapel stood fully restored to its original appearance. The “crowning glory” of all the effort put into the chapel came when the over 300-year-old gilded baroque altar from Spain was installed, replacing the original one that had disappeared long ago.

Photo of Ahrens' Capistrano oil
The Great Stone Church will never be brought back to where it once proudly stood within Mission San Juan Capistrano. On the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, December 8, 1812, an earthquake struck the sanctuary as two boys rang the church bells, calling worshipers to that day’s second mass. The churchgoers within the church from the first service screamed as the walls around them swayed and the dome at the rear of the church cracked open. Thirty-eight adult Native Americans died along with the two boys in the bell tower.

Following failed attempts in the 1860’s to restore the church, resulting in further damage, the remains were secured. Today the ruins of The Great Stone Church still stand like beautiful historical abstract sculptures. They continue to attract artists, historians, and tourists from around the world.

Photo by Deborah Downes
As I wandered within the remains of The Great Stone Church, sunlight cut across the crumbled walls in such a way it appeared as if each mass of stone gripped a scene from the tragic story of the sanctuary’s destruction. Snapping shots of those dramatic images, a scene from The Oak Lovers, the historical novel my daughter Kim wrote on Carl and Madonna, came alive. In my head I clearly saw Carl standing near me. He appeared deeply shaken by vivid mental images of what transpired there so long ago; then visualized each brushstroke of a future painting: a canvas in front of which viewers may find themselves inexplicably weeping. In order to create it, he would have to paint exactly what he saw, in all its excruciating beauty. The rubble and crumpled bodies would be painted over, but evidence of all those restless spirits would bleed through, disguised as a crumbling rock, a decaying plant, a string of rosary beads left on the stone floor. Vines of ivy would strangle a tree limb or a wild rose bush. A shadow might resemble a kneeling woman.

I thought of that passage again, along with all I’d seen and felt at Mission Capistrano, while seated on a bench in the first corridor of the mission I’d photographed. At that moment in time whether or not I succeeded in capturing through words and photos family connections to the mission didn’t matter. It was enough to be on that old bench feeling the warmth of the sun and smelling the nearby roses, while my experiences at Mission San Juan Capistrano tightened the ties that brought me there.

Madonna Ahrens with Pete at Mission San Juan Capistrano - 1906


  1. Gorgeous pictures and a beautifully told story. Love the old vs. new shots. I'm one who strongly feels history in old and sacred places. Thanks for sharing, Deborah!

  2. Thank you, Vaughn. I had the pleasure of making a return visit there. During that time I spoke with a charming man who often comes to the mission. Learned his grandparents might have been there when Carl and Madonna were back in 1906. To say the least, I experienced chills of pleasure over that possibility. My times at mission Capistrano hold a special place in my heart.

  3. Lovely post and pictures, Deb. I can imagine how haunting it must have felt to walk Carl's path. Love the shadowing. Thanks for guest blogging!

    1. Thanks, Joan. It was haunting, as well as beautiful. At times felt an overlapping between the past and present, like only thin layers of near transparent silk separated the two. A real pleasure to guest blog here:-)


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