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Bell Ringer, Mission's Link With Past, Dies

November 16, 1994|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Paul Arbiso, who was known as the living embodiment of historic San Juan Capistrano, died in his sleep Monday at the age of 99.

Arbiso was internationally known as the bell ringer who welcomed the swallows home every year on Swallows Day--a job he performed for more than 60 years.

As the city's patriarch since 1952, he was a connection with San Juan Capistrano's rich frontier history, someone who could remember life before automobiles, freeways and condominiums.

"He was our living link with the past," said Mary Tryon, a spokeswoman for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. "He was born before the turn of the century and lived here all his life. Paul was the one person who remembered the mission before all the restoration work started."

The Juaneno Indian's long life centered on Mission San Juan. He played in its dusty stables as a child and got his first job there in 1908.

Eventually, he became head gardener for the mission's rose gardens, a job that would remain his passion even after retirement at the age of 93.

As bell ringer, Arbiso would pull the thick ropes of the mission's giant iron bells to announce a death or the birth of a new life in town. But his fame came March 19 every year, when media from around the world would assemble to watch for the fabled return of the swallows.

It was Arbiso's job to ring the mission bells to symbolize the sighting of the first swallow of spring. He took the job seriously, but couldn't help but poke fun at the inevitable reporter who didn't know the return of the swallows was mostly myth.

"When do you think the first swallow will come?" he was asked one year by a journalist.

"Oh, probably right after Mass," Arbiso replied, meaning that the first swallow would make an appearance only after he left church and could sound the bells.

Arbiso conceded little to the passing years. Until becoming ill in recent weeks, he was a familiar sight downtown, walking to Sunday Mass at the mission or visiting friends.

"We never had a doubt that he would make 100," said his daughter, Alice Gastelum. "We were going to have a big blowout. But he died a beautiful death, just going to sleep comfortably while we watched."

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