SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — It lures a diverse set of worshipers: A real estate lawyer from Irvine, a Basque from southwestern France, a homeless man who sleeps on the streets of this historic city.
But when they file into Serra Chapel on the grounds of Mission San Juan Capistrano each morning, this eclectic crowd maintains a tradition that began 210 years ago with Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary priest who built missions from San Diego to San Francisco during the colonization of California.
In recent days, some worshipers had been staying long after the daily 7 a.m. Mass, logging extra worship time while they could. For today the chapel held its last service for at least three months. It was closed as part of the mission's multimillion-dollar earthquake stabilization and preservation program.
Officials said it marks the first extended closure since 1922 for the chapel, which is the oldest building in the state still in use and the only one standing in which Father Serra officiated.
"This is a special place and I'm going to miss it," said 63-year-old Jim Zarbock. He said the chapel was the main reason he and his family bought a house in San Juan Capistrano when they left Ohio for Orange County 15 years ago.
Inside the chapel, "there is a sense of history, of all the past prayers and good feelings," said Zarbock, who normally worships there several times a week. "You walk out knowing that so many people went before you, and you leave having the power to face all the adversities around you."
Like Zarbock, many of the 50 worshipers who attend the daily morning Mass say they are drawn to the chapel by its historical allure and the building's architectural charm.
But Serra Chapel is not merely a place of worship. It is also a museum.
Father Serra completed the building in 1782, six years after he founded the mission. The next year, 213 Juaneno Indians were converted to Catholicism in the chapel.
Since then, the structure has hosted thousands of baptisms, weddings and funerals. It also has been visited by the thousands of tourists who flock to the city each year to witness the fabled return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano.
Visitors entering the chapel must walk past the mission's burial grounds and through an entryway where the baptismal font that Serra used still stands. Near the entrance is a reed organ built in 1892.
The chapel is a tunnel-like structure. It is as long as a basketball court, but its 20-foot width allows only two rows of stained pine pews. The four-foot thick adobe walls are adorned with hand-framed oil paintings, ornate drawings, and statues tucked into neatly cut niches.
A row of chandeliers dangles on rusted chains from the 22-foot-high ceilings, ending at the golden baroque altar that was carved from cherrywood in Spain about 300 years ago.
The altar was originally shipped to Los Angeles for a cathedral that was never built. It wound up at the mission, which extended and heightened the front half of the chapel during renovations in 1922 to accommodate it.
With its ornate trappings, the chapel is not unlike the cathedrals that Marie Lacouague would have attended in her province in southwestern France.
For Lacouague, Serra Chapel has been a sanctuary since she moved to California in 1951. She was married there, all four children and seven grandchildren were baptized there, and she still attends Mass about three times a week to pray "for my family, friends and for peace in this troubled world."
Another regular is a homeless man who identified himself only as Michael. He sometimes leaves his grocery cart laden with recyclable bottles and aluminum cans and all his belongings at the entrance, and slips into the chapel for a brief respite.
"These people are friendlier than the others I meet on the street," Michael said. "They help me out."
Gregory Weiler, 35, a real estate attorney, sometimes brings along two of his four children. They take Communion before he rushes off to his Irvine law office.
"I like the feeling of warmth here," he said. "You can feel the spirituality of the place."
The three-month closure of the chapel will give preservation crews enough time to work on the structural integrity of the adobe walls, reinforcing them for "more than 100 years to come," said mission director Jerry Miller.
Crews will place steel reinforcements in the walls and the tiled roof, but the chapel's architecture will be maintained.
The mission will remain open to visitors, and regular morning Mass will be held at the new church on Camino Capistrano.
Still, the closure saddens many parishioners, perhaps most notably the area's Juaneno Indians, who say their ancestral spirits roam the chapel.
"We realize and accept that the construction work is important, but we are taking the closing very hard," said Jerry Nieblas, a mission employee and a Juaneno Indian. "These walls hold our secrets. It's here my people were baptized . . . received Communion and here where they were buried.
"The closure gives us the feeling you get when a family member takes a long trip and you know they'll be gone for a long time."
Chapel Temporarily Closed Serra Chapel, located onthe grounds of Mission San Juan Capistrano, closes today for three months for renovation.