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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Honoring the 200th Anniversary of the Collapse of the Great Stone Church

December 8, 2012 is a significant date in the history of San Juan Capistrano.  It marks the 200th anniversary of the 1812 earthquake that rocked the area and collapsed the Great Stone Church at the Mission.

The Great Stone Church – begun in 1797 and completed in 1806 – was considered one of the architectural masterpieces of early California history.  An impressive structure, it is said that the tower could be seen from more than 10 miles away and the bells could be heard by the ships at sea.

On Sunday morning, December 8, 1812, at 7 AM local time, Southern California experienced an earthquake believed to have a magnitude of 6.9 and an epicenter near Wrightwood, California.  The earthquake caused the bell tower of the Mission’s Great Stone Church to crumble and fell into the church structure itself.  Two young boys tending the bell tower were killed.   Sadly, Sunday Mass was underway in the Church.  The movement of the quake buckled the large doors of the church, binding them closed.  Parishioners panicked when it appeared they could not escape the collapsing structure.  Priests’ led some to safety in the sacristy, but 38 more souls perished when aftershocks eventually caused the ceiling of the Great Stone Church to collapse.  In total, 40 people lost their lives in the tragedy.  Most of the victims were Native Americans whose labor had built the Great Stone Church and who were there worshiping at the time of the quake.  The Church was never rebuilt, and the tragedy marked the start of a long period of decline and neglect for the Mission.  The San Juan Capistrano Historical Society has more information on the history of the Mission, including the tragedy of 1812.  Descendants of the Juaneno people (the local Native American population) still honor those who died in the collapse of the Great Stone Church in a solemn ceremony typically closed to the public.

Nativity Scene in the Ruins of the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Tomorrow, on the 200th anniversary of San Juan Capistrano’s greatest tragedy, please pause for a moment in remembrance of ancestors and loved ones who have passed, and be sure to cherish and embrace those with whom you are fortunate enough to be able to share this holiday season.  Life is precious, and as our community learned two hundred years ago – it can change in an instant.

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