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Great Stone Church Has a New Pillar of Support

March 10, 1997|ANN CONWAY

Joan Irvine Smith is on a mission: rally community leaders around the preservation of the ruins of the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Each year, the ruins of the church erode further. As they do, the country loses a little more of one of its most celebrated landmarks.

In January, Smith donated $150,000 to help defray the cost of the church's restoration, estimated at $5 million by a team of engineering and architectural experts.

Recently, she held a tea to encourage other community leaders to become involved. "Whatever your religious persuasion might be, we have to recognize that this is more than a mission--it is our heritage," Smith told the 100 women she'd invited to tea on the mission grounds.

Her plan: encourage the women to become members of Friends of the Mission, a support group she founded in December with mission administrator Jerry Miller. There are no initiation fees, no dues.

"We just want you to get a germ of interest started with people you know--spread enthusiasm about the landmark," Smith said. As interest grows, Smith hopes the group can begin raising funds for the project.

Smith called the 220-year-old landmark one of her favorite places. "I love to walk around here and just look at it," she said.

Said mission pastor Msgr. Paul Martin, a guest at the tea: "The mission is a very peaceful place where people can come and just feel the presence of God. It's a place of refuge and beauty away from the everyday distractions of our world."

More than half a million visitors tour the mission grounds annually, paying $5 ($4 for seniors and children 12 and under) to view its bell tower, fountain, rose gardens, Serra Chapel and the ruins of the Stone Church.

Completed in 1806, the church roof and exterior structures collapsed during an 1812 earthquake, killing 40 people. Church walls and arches make up the remaining ruins.

Gate admissions bring revenue to the mission of more than a million dollars a year, Miller said. The funds are used for mission preservation, maintenance and administration costs.

The mission receives no financial support from the Catholic Diocese of Orange, which holds the property, "or from any church or government agency," Miller said. "The only revenue we receive comes from visitors and those who donate to the mission for its preservation."

Work began last year on the church, when four doctoral graduates from the University of Pennsylvania--armed with Q-Tips, gauze and adhesives--began the painstaking process of repairing its disintegrating walls.

"It is a ruin in the sense that the Acropolis is a ruin," Miller explained. "It talks about our past; it talks about people who were here."

The goal of the project is not to rebuild the church, but to preserve the ruins for future generations.

"We want to freeze it in time as a ruin after 1812," Miller said. "Right now, it's propped up with scaffolding, like giant bookends. We want to reinforce the stone--preserve what's there so people will be able to come into it."

A few years ago, when tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, were planning what would become their world-acclaimed Rome concert, a representative for the opera stars called Miller. They asked about the old stone church's availability for a concert.

"It is the most famous ruin in North America," Miller explained. "I had to tell them we couldn't do it because of the scaffolding."

During the past two years, the mission has spent $350,000 on preserving the ruins. It has another $200,000 set aside, Miller said. The rest of the work will depend on the mission obtaining funds to continue. "We pay as we go," he said.

* For information on Friends of the Mission: (714) 248-2026.

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