San Juan Bautista Mission (Exterior)

Old Mission, San Juan Bautista, California, USA


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper: Rhipidion the Sacred Fan
Church: Old Mission
Location: San Juan Bautista, California, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 6 April 2011, 12:00am

The building

The Mission was founded in 1797 by Padre Fermin de Lasuen, successor to the legendary Padre Junipero Serra, who had established dozens of missions in Spain's New World colony of California. At first not much more than a simple adobe church, a granary, barracks, a monastery, and some adobe houses, the mission was expanded in 1803 when the cornerstone for the present church was laid. The compound was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1906, and restoration work did not begin until 1976. Students from the University of California, Monterey Bay, carry on a continuing project of restoration and preservation. The service I attended was held in the Guadalupe Chapel, the mission's original sanctuary. The chapel is a plain, dimly lit rectangular room with exposed wood beams and a "cat door" through which cats may enter freely to keep the chapel mice-free.

The church

Although Mexico secularized all the California missions after winning its independence from Spain, the mission church continued to function as a parish church, and services have been held here without interruption ever since. After California became part of the United States, the missions were returned to the Church by President Abraham Lincoln in one of his last official acts before his assassination. I found the very fact that there is still an active faith community on site rather special. As well as services in both English and Spanish, there is also a traditional Latin mass celebrated.

The neighborhood

The tiny city of San Juan Bautista is located in west central California about 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay. It sits squarely on top of the San Andreas Fault, a geological feature responsible for many of California's major earthquakes. The city boasts the last remaining original Spanish plaza left in California; the plaza appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's classic movie Vertigo. The city's official bird is the chicken. Chickens are free to roam the streets, and there is an official chicken festival each year in which chicken is served. (That just seems wrong!)

The cast

The Revd James Henry, pastoral administrator.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

20 people, making the chapel three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was no greeter on duty. I took a seat near the door, and the lady sitting next to me asked if I was cold.

Was your pew comfortable?

Good sized wooden chair, very comfortable. The seats were arranged in a half circle around the altar, giving a feeling of community with others during worship.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet greetings among friends.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

There was no music.

Did anything distract you?

There were about 150 school children on field trips running and shouting outside the chapel doors. Reminder to self: Do not visit a California mission during the school year.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A simple spoken mass. I am not Roman Catholic, and so I was not included when it came time to approach the Holy Table.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Father Henry's style was informal, which fit the small chapel gathering. He did seem to use notes, which surprised me, as his message was simple and direct.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Between now and Easter we are going to hear a lot of scripture read, but hearing again and again that Jesus is long suffering and of great goodness is a good thing that we should take to heart.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The feeling of being a part of the community, which came from the arrangement of the chairs and the simple spoken service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

When I realized that there was to be no collection, I was not sure what to do with my Mystery Worshiper card. I could not very well just hand it to the priest as I left. I later mailed it to the church office.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Everyone made a quick exit, including me, as I had to meet someone for lunch. I did exchange a smile with several people on the way out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none, but lunch was nice. And no, I did not order chicken.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – This was really a hard one to answer. As an Episcopalian, I felt very much moved by the service, but I would have wanted to receive communion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, I felt very close to God that day.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The strong feeling of shared community, and wishing that I could have been included at the table.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools