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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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Ghosts of Orange County: 1. Mission San Juan Capistrano

To celebrate Halloween, Rancho Ortega Blog is counting down the ten most haunted locations in Orange County.  If you missed any of our earlier installments, you can find them at the links below:

10. Katie Wheeler Library and the “Lady in Blue.”

9.  John Wayne and the Wild Goose Yacht

8. Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm

7. Fox Theater

6. El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant

5. Yorba Cemetery and the Pink Lady

4. Plummer Auditorium and the Tunnel Ghosts

3.  Los Rios Street

2. Black Star Canyon

And on this, All Hallow’s Eve, we are pleased to present the most haunted location in all of Orange County — the Mission San Juan Capistrano!


1.                Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano)

Mission San Juan Capistrano is known as the Jewel of the California Missions.  Founded by Father Junipero Serra on All Saint’s Day, November 1, 1776, the Mission is one of the oldest buildings in California – indeed it is considered the oldest building in California that is still in use.  The history of the Mission parallels the conflicts and struggles of early California.  For example, Father Serra’s consecration of the Mission was actually the Catholic Church’s second attempt to create an outpost in the area.  The first effort, led by Father Fermin Lasuén on October 30, 1775, was quickly abandoned due to unrest among the Native Americans in the San Diego area.

Among the Mission’s most notable structures is the Great Stone Church.  The only Mission structure not built of adobe, construction of the Great Stone Church was began in 1797 and finished in 1806.  On the Feast Day of the “Immaculate Conception,” the area experienced a massive earthquake estimated at magnitude 7.0 or greater.  The quake brought the ceiling of the stone church crashing down.  Forty worshippers in the cathedral and two altar boys in the bell tower were buried in the rubble and lost their lives.

The ruins of the Great Stone Church, which collapsed in 1812 following an earthquake

During its time as a settlement, the inhabitants of the Mission dealt with famine, drought and disease.  The Mission was once even attacked by pirates!   In 1818, the pirate Bouchard (who had previously attacked the Missions at Monterey and Santa Barbara) sailed into Dana Point Harbor and demanded supplies from San Juan Capistrano.  When the pirates’ demands were rejected, Bouchard sent 140 men armed with cannons to assault the Mission.  Hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, the Mission garrison was overwhelmed.  Bouchard and his crew looted the Mission and damaged several of its buildings.

The Mission was looted again when Governor Figueroa confiscated the Mission in San Juan Capistrano as part of Mexico’s secularization of the California Missions.  Abandoned by the friars, locals looted everything of value left in the Mission, damaging buildings and destroying its history.

The Mission fell into private hands and served as the personal residence of a number of notable Orange County families, including Don Juan Forster himself.  In 1865, President Lincoln returned possession of the Missions to the Catholic Church.  Although it was back in the hands of the Church, the Mission languished for years, nearly abandoned at times and falling into states of extreme disrepair.

Beyond its history and tragedies, a large number of persons found their final resting place on the Mission grounds.  It is estimated that more than 2,000 people, primarily the local Native Americans (Acjachemen), are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission’s cemetery.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is a place of legend – from the famous story of Zorro (originally set in Capistrano) to the return of the swallows, the Jewel of the Mission is a singular place that captures all of the history, tragedy, adventure and romance that was early California.  From Franciscan monks to Acjachemen natives to French pirates to gunslinging rancheros, they have all passed through the arches of Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Is it any surprise that the Mission is the most haunted location in all of Orange County?

The earthquake that destroyed the “Great Stone Church” is the origin of Mission San Juan Capistrano’s most famous ghost – a young Acjachemen girl who had been given the Christian name Magdalena and who perished under the collapse. Magdalena was said to be in love with a young man named Teofilo.  On the morning of the earthquake, Magdalena was holding a single candle as she led the congregation into the church at the moment the earthquake struck.  Her lover Teófilo rushed into the collapsing church in an attempt to save her. Days later, the pair was found among the ruins of the Great Stone Church, arms wrapped around each other in a final embrace.  Those who have seen her say that on a full moon night, her face can be seen in the high windows of the Great Stone Church, illuminated by the pale glow of a single candle.

The Mission boasts at least one monk among its ghosts.  From the rear, he might be confused for an actual friar as he silently shuffles among the loggias of the Mission clad in his Franciscan robes.  But those who have encountered him from front are terrified to look at the hooded figure without a face.

Another common Mission ghost is the soldier – perhaps one of those who lost their life defending the Mission from Bouchard – who can be seen dutifully standing guard at the original front entrance of the Mission.  Never moving, never speaking, this silent sentry refuses to leave his post, even from the afterlife.

The Mission is a sprawling complex of hallways, rooms, grounds and walls.  Visitors frequently report catching a glimpse of mysterious shadows or unexplained noises.  Sudden chills or disembodied voices are also common.  The Mission cemetery is a frequent source of such ghostly encounters, including multiple reports of the sound of a child crying from the vicinity of the graveyard.  Mission docents will approach, expecting to find a child who has been separated from his parents, only to find the cemetery strangely empty.

Have you ever heard the Mission bells ringing at odd hours of the night?  Mission employees have reported occasions when the bells will ring themselves at the most unusual times.

The Mission Bells have been known to ring by themselves at odd hours of the night

Due to its lengthy and colorful history, and the number and consistency of the ghostly encounters reported there, Mission San Juan Capistrano is our choice for the most haunted location in all of Orange County.

Happy Halloween!

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