Over 200 years ago San Juan Capistrano began as a Spanish California mission in 1775. This mission is known for the swallows that return every year in March. But what many do not know is this mission is also considered haunted.
One ghost story has been passed down from one generation to the next since the early 1800s. It is a story of lost love and lost life.
Magdalena was the 16-year old daughter of one of the mission’s soldiers. She was considered to be very beautiful. A young man--a promising artist by the name of Teofilo--traveled to the mission to paint frescos on the walls of the newly built mission's Great Stone Church.
These two young people were in love by the time Teofilo finished his task. But Magdalena’s father caught wind of the couples’ budding romance and strictly forbid Magdalena from seeing Teofilo ever again. He told his daughter that she must marry a man from her own social class.
Defying her father’s wishes Magdalena continued to meet Teofilo secretly. But the mission being a small close-knit community did not lend itself well to secrecy. Magdalena’s father discovered her and her lover one night as they met.
As punishment, he demanded that Magdalena confess her sin to the mission priest but this was not enough, he also arranged for Magdalena to parade in front of the entire church congregation holding a “penitent candle.”
On the December morning in 1812 that Magdalena was to carry this candle she went to the church early. She lit the candle and started her walk up the churches’ center aisle toward the priest where she was to say her penance. But halfway there the earth began to shake.
It was an 6.9-magnitude earthquake.
|Bells in 1813 a year after|
bell tower collapsed.
The bell tower toppled onto the church, people screamed and tried to make their way to the door but they found it jammed shut. 40 people were buried alive under the rubble.
It took months for the community to clear this debris and uncover the bodies so they could be buried. Among the dead was Magdalena. She was found still grasping the candle in her hand.
Ever since, one ghost that is seen at the mission is that of Magdalena. On moonlit nights countless witnesses have seen her face staring out of the one remaining church window.
Some state she is still trying to do penance for her sin.
|Mission in 1810, the Great Stone Chapel|
before the earthquake.
A Spirit Seen Before Death
Father O’Sullivan tells this ghost story, he is a pastor at the mission.
A young woman named Matilda lived in a small adobe house near the Serra Chapel at the mission. She helped the padre by cleaning the church, altar and the altar clothes.
One day as the padre gave mass he noticed Matilda looking in through one church window. The next time he saw Matilda he chastised her for not coming in and joining the service. Matilda confused explained to him that she had not been at the church that day but instead at home.
Soon after the padre and two women saw Matilda at the church window. Her brother-in-law was outside the church and saw Matilda walking away. He tried to gain her attention but she seemed to just disappear.
He went to her home to wait so he could ask her why she had ignored him. But to his surprise she was already there. Again confused she told him that she had not been at the church-- in fact she had been at home all day.
A few days later Matilda died.
“It was whispered that the person seen looking in the window and lurking in the corridors of Serra Chapel had not been Matilda but her spirit, which was walking around while she lived; a sure sign of her impending death.”
On the day Matilda died one last usual occurrence happened. The bells at the mission rang but no one was was assigned to ring them. It appears unseen hands rang these bells. When the area was inspected shortly afterwards the bell ropes were found neatly coiled and still.
Other Ghosts Seen
Over the years…
A faceless monk has been seen. He is spotted in the North Wing Corridor walking quickly. He is considered “faceless” because the witnesses who have seen him only briefly see his back as he disappears into the darkness of the corridor.
A ghostly soldier is seen pacing back and forth as if he is still guarding the Mission. His heavy boots are also heard walking alongside the building.
Information about the mission’s history can be found at the San Juan Capistrano’s museum site, here.