When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano

It is perhaps Orange County’s most charming legend. Every year, it is said, on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th), the swallows wing their way back to old Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Everyone always knew that swallows re-appeared in Southern California each spring. As far back as 1862, the Los Angeles Star noted that “The advent of the swallows is said to presage summer,” and that they were nesting “in their usual number, on our Court House.” (March 22, 1862)

Early visitors to San Juan Capistrano mentioned the migratory little birds as well. A writer in the Santa Ana Blade (April 21, 1892) described how “The horizon is black with swallows in the vicinity of old ruins – wheeling and circling through the air – and they present a beautiful setting for the eye to contemplate, and reminds us we are one year older.”

But the story of their miraculous annual arrival does not seem to appear in print until 1924. That spring, stories appeared in both the Santa Ana Register and the Los Angeles Times. The Register article (March 17, 1924) does suggest that the story had been making the rounds in Capistrano for some time. Not in its general statement that the swallows’ “prompt arrival … has been noted by numerous residents of the ‘Mission Pueblo,’ who are scanning the heavens, each day, to catch sight of these harbingers of spring,” but in the more specific claim that “They have been observed to arrive late only once in many years. Then they were two days tardy. In 1921 they arrived in a body on the morning of the nineteenth and one of them flew into church during mass.”

(Ironically, the swallows were “late” in 1924, arriving on April Fools’ Day.)

The story was first popularized by Father St. John O’Sullivan, pastor of the mission from 1910 until his death in 1933. But he does not tell the story in his Little Chapters About San Juan Capistrano (1912), nor does it appear in Father Zephyrin Engelhardt’s 1922 history of the mission. It first seems to appear in book form in Charles Francis Saunders’ Capistrano Nights, Tales of a California Mission Town (1930), written from notes supplied him by Father O’Sullivan around 1927. And even there it is the last chapter in the book, where Saunders quotes O’Sullivan as saying that:

One day several years ago, I was passing the new hotel at the west side of the town plaza, and there was the proprietor out with a long pole smashing the swallows’ nests that were under the eaves. The poor birds were in a terrible panic, darting hither and thither, flying and screaming about their demolished homes. [This was presumably the Hotel Capistrano, built in 1920.]

 “What in the world are you doing?” I asked.

“Why,” said he, “these dirty birds are a nuisance, and I am getting rid of them.”

“Why where can they go?” I continued.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole, “but they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”

“Then come on, swallows,” I cried, “I’ll give you shelter. Come to the mission, there’s room enough there for you all!”

Sure enough, they took me at my word, and the very next morning they were busy building under the eaves of the restored sacristy of Father Serra’s church.

Father O’Sullivan, in turn, cited José de Gracia Cruz (1844-1924), the old Indian bellringer at the mission (often known by the nickname “Acú”) as the source of at least some of the stories. “They say, padre,” he quoted him as saying, “that when they go away from here at the summer’s end, they fly to Jerusalem and stay there through the winter. I don’t know why, but that is what people say … and after that, they come back here again for the feast of Saint Joseph, and to build their little houses in the mission.”

“But, Acú,” Father O’Sullivan asked, “between here and Jerusalem is a great ocean. How can they fly so far without getting tired and falling into the water?”

But Acú was up to the challenge – “You see, padre,” he replied very deliberately, “they carry with them in their beaks a little twig of a tree, and when they get tired flying across the ocean they put the twig on the water and alight upon it and rest themselves.”

(In fact, the little birds come from South America.)

Several elements are missing from these earliest versions of the swallows story. There is no mention of some of the birds arriving before March 19th – now traditionally written off as “scouts” for the main flock. Nor is their “traditional” departure date – October 23rd, the feast day of St. John of Capistrano – mentioned.

Still, the story was too good for reporters to pass up, and within a year or two it was national news. By the 1930s, it was appearing in newspapers around the world, and covered by radio reporters. And when Leon René turned it into a song in 1939, the legend was complete.

Acú’s story was a godsend for Father O’Sullivan, who in the 1920s was struggling to raise money to restore and rebuild the old mission. The publicity it generated is still enjoyed by both the mission and the community.