Family Pilgrimage: Saint Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows Celebration, Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA

MSJC 2015 Title Photo

On the solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19th, we went on a little pilgrimage to Mission San Juan Capistrano, via rail. Of course our children loved that we went by train. We began our journey in prayer…

O Lord, please bless us on this day of pilgrimage. Open our hearts to experience the beauty of Your creation, and the heritage of your Church. Grant us the grace to deepen our faith, bond as a family, and be inspired by others who have brought you glory. Amen.

And because it was the solemnity of St. Joseph, we prayed the St. Joseph novena en route as well.


Mission San Juan Capistrano is a short walk from the train station, and it was a fairly easy journey with our three little ones, under age 5 (thanks to a stroller and a couple of baby carriers of course). And we were not alone visiting the Mission on this day because March 19th is a celebration of an event that made the Mission world-renowned, all thanks to the generous heart of a single priest.

Msgr. St. John O’Sullivan

Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan (his baptismal name, he’s not canonized) was diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after he was ordained a priest. Seeking a better climate for his decaying health, and not expecting to live long, he eventually found himself in charge of the then abandoned ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano. While he camped out in Serra Chapel, he started restoring beauty to the buildings and grounds. A highlight of the Mission grounds for us, especially for my children, was the beautiful fountain Msgr. O’Sullivan constructed, with numerous lily pads, and very large, well-fed koi fish that my oldest was thrilled to feed.


O Lord, please help us to see the beauty of Your creation in all places, and help us to bring about and restore beauty in our homes and our communities, just as Msgr. O’Sullivan did at Mission San Juan Capistrano, for Your glory. Amen.

Msgr. O’Sullivan did more than begin restoration of the Mission; he also established the local parish that is thriving to the present-day. However, it is one small act that Msgr. O’Sullivan performed one spring day that propelled the Mission to it’s level of fame around the world.

The Tale of the Swallows

The story more or less goes that one day in the village of San Juan Capistrano, Fr. O’Sullivan noticed a shopkeeper destroying the nests of swallows, who returned to the region every spring to have their babies. The shopkeeper insisted that the birds were a nuisance, but Fr. O’Sullivan lovingly invited the swallows to come to the grounds of the Mission, where they could build their nests and be safe. In the years that followed, the swallows returned to the Mission every year, exactly on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Even though the swallows no longer make their pilgrimage to the Mission today (supposedly due to the development of the area), March 19th, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, is still a festive day when this beloved story is celebrated. Msgr. O’Sullivan, whose health was restored during his time in San Juan Capistrano, and lived there for a couple decades, is buried in the cemetery next to Serra chapel.


Dear Msgr. O’Sullivan, thank you for bringing such beauty to the Mission here, and dedicating your hard work to this community for the glory of God. Please help us to do the same with the little piece of creation God entrusts to each of us. Help us also to love all of God’s creatures with the same generous love you showed the little swallows. May you rest in peace. Amen

Serra Chapel

While there is a lot to learn about at the Mission, the most inspiring place for me was Serra chapel. This is the only surviving chapel where the soon to be canonized Fr. Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, has celebrated mass. How exciting to walk on the same tiles as a saint! Praying my rosary in the front pew, I couldn’t help but imagine Fr. Serra, and Msgr. O’Sullivan praying, thinking, and talking to God in the exact same spot I was sitting.

Blessed Fr. Serra, thank you for your hard work and fortitude in the face of many dangers and difficulties. Because of you my family and I are gathered here today in this beautiful and inspirational place that is your legacy. Please help me to also serve all of the people God has brought into my life with a selfless love, and to bear my crosses with joy. Amen.

There are countless things to learn about in this chapel, among them figuring out who all the saint statues are of and why they are here. One saint that is given special significance is St. Peregrine, who has a dedicated prayer room off of the main chapel. St. Peregrine was cured of cancer after he had a vision of Christ on the cross reaching down and touching his leg that was deteriorating from the cancer. Therefore, St. Peregrine is the patron saint of cancer. This prayer room is a beautiful spot to pray for loved ones who are suffering from this vicious disease.


Located just outside the chapel is the little cemetery where Msgr. O’Sullivan is buried, as well as a little garden with a fountain that is directly under the Mission bells. These historic bells are rung daily, and several times throughout the day on March 19th. It is an exhilarating, and very loud experience! Another highlight for my children!

O Lord, thank you for the joyful, loud noise of the bells of Mission San Juan Capistrano! Let their majestic ringing enliven our spirits to praise you always. Amen


St. Joseph Day

Along with stories of Msgr. O’Sullivan, the swallows famed migration, historical talks, and local performances, there was also a beautiful altar set up in honor of St. Joseph for the celebration of his solemnity. Blessed Fr. Serra named the mission for St. John of Capestrano, making the Italian city of Capestrano it’s sister city. In villages all over Italy the solemnity of St. Joseph is marked with great celebration and feasting in honor of St. Joseph rescuing Sicily from famine. Thus providing food to the hungry is a central aspect of this celebration. Here at the mission, a statue of St. Joseph sits atop a three-tiered altar (to represent the Trinity), filled with loaves of bread and bottles of olive oil, with bite-sized pieces for all to eat from. My picky eaters weren’t interested, but at least we were able to make a monetary donation to Fr. Serra’s pantry that provides food for those in need in the local community.


The Mission Basilica

Following the festivities at the historic mission, we were able to spend a little quiet time in Serra chapel and on the grounds. Then we ventured next door to the present day parish at the Mission Basilica, which is a pilgrimage site in and of itself. A basilica is given a special appointment from the Pope in recognition of an important significance that church has in Catholic history or culture. It becomes a special gathering place for pilgrims, with special dedication to our Holy Father, and bears the current Pope’s coat of arms. Inside the Mission Basilica, there are beautiful side altars for St. Peregrine, and St. Juan Diego, along with many other saints that are significant to the history and devotion of the people in this region. Even though the Basilica is a fairly new church, it is reconstructed in the style of the Great Stone Church at the historic mission that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1812.

Saint Pope John Paul II, thank you for proclaiming the Mission Church of San Juan Capistrano a basilica! Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing my family together here in this beautiful, awe-inspiring church. May our hearts grow deeper in faith, and may we remember to always pray for our Pope. May God bless Pope Francis. Amen.


After a nice dinner of Italian food, appropriate for St. Joseph’s Day, we headed home on the train, arriving just in time for the kids’ bedtime. We had an incredibly lovely day at the historic and modern Missions of San Juan Capistrano, and we definitely left inspired and enlivened in our faith. I pray that my children, even as young as they are, recognized some of the beauty and love that filled these places and the people connected to them.

Little Pilgrims Things to do at Mission San Juan Capistrano

  •  Bring a special bottle to fill with holy water at Serra chapel, (or support the Mission and buy a beautiful one at the gift shop).
  • Light a candle in Serra Chapel.
  • Find the statue of St. Francis on the grounds, perhaps bring a little birdseed to place on or near the statue for the birds.
  • Arrive early and attend Mass in Serra chapel.
  • Pray for those you know battling cancer in the prayer room dedicated to St. Peregrine.
  • Read the book “Song of the Swallows” by Leo Politi, also available for purchase in the bookstore.
  • Feed the koi fish daily for a small fee.
  • With young children, point out and thank God for the koi fish, the swallows, and all of the beautiful things that you can see at the Mission.
  • Take a photo or draw a picture of a saint you don’t recognize in Serra Chapel and research it at home.
  • Look into the activities offered at the Mission that help make history come alive!

Things to do at home

  • Celebrate the solemnity of St. Joseph! Pray the novena dedicated to him, make a donation to feed the hungry in his honor, and have Italian food!
  • Make a space in your home beautiful to reflect God’s glory, or pick up trash somewhere in your neighborhood just as Msgr. O’Sullivan worked to restore beauty to the ruins of the Mission.
  • Help God’s creatures by putting up a bird feeder, or bird bath, visit an animal shelter, or adopt an animal from a shelter.

For More Information Mission San Juan Capistrano  San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Megan

    Thanks for sharing! Such a cool pilgrimage! I loved hearing about the swallows… I have a vague memory of reading a children’s story book about it a long time ago, I’ll have to try and find it and see if my memory serves me right!

    1. theresapmcguirk

      Thanks Megan! Was the book “Song of the Swallows” per chance? It’s a classic and the only children’s book that I know of about the mission.

  2. Aaron

    Great blog! Love the details of the story behind Swallow’s Day!

  3. Laura Rose

    I love this post so much! We were there with my parents the following day. Our girls love the Mission. They love listening to the little audio tour segments and learning about what all the things they see were used for. It’s a bummer that the swallows no longer come. We read the Song of the Swallows on St. Joe’s feast day in anticipation of our trip the following day and also in honor of the feast, and the story is such a great one. My oldest loves to try to sing along with the swallow song on the audio tour. hahaha. Serra Chapel and the fountain behind the Mission bells are my very favorite spots and I loved your reflections and prayers about them!!

    1. theresapmcguirk

      Thank you so much Laura! Your girls are so precious! I wish my kids were older to appreciate the audio tour. Maybe in a few more years. Ha. And yes, the “Song of the Swallows” is such a beautiful children’s book! How blessed are we that we get to go to this place in person with our children!?

  4. Willow

    I remember going to Mission San Juan Capistrano on a field trip in 4th grade – the year of our Mission Projects. It inspired my parents to take my siblings and I on a road trip to almost all of the California missions during spring break. Song of the Swallows is a classic story and I think it’s so beautiful that you give your children these opportunities. 🙂

  5. Micaela

    I adore the San Juan Mission, as well as the Song of the Swallows. Can’t wait to go back!

    P.S. Your blog looks beautiful!