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ANN CONWAY

4 Days for the Past to Touch the Future

Mission lovers are invited to dramatize Spanish California history while helping preserve the San Juan Capistrano landmark.

April 06, 1998|ANN CONWAY

Here's a chance to make history while preserving a piece of it: Volunteer for the first California Mission Heritage Pageant, a fund-raiser for Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Organizers are looking for committee chairs and sponsors to help launch the pageant, planned for August 1999. Actor Ricardo Montalban has agreed to narrate the pageant and serve as honorary chairman. The pageant is to be staged at a site near the mission--the Oaks/Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, operated by Joan Irvine Smith.

"This is the beginning of a dream," says Harvey Smith of Laguna Beach, president of the Mission Pageant Foundation. "It's as if we were starting the [Laguna Beach] Pageant of the Masters from the beginning."

Here's the way it will work: On each of four consecutive days, up to 5,000 spectators will view historical reenactments of mission history in a setting right out of Old California.

"Like the Renaissance Faire, people will be able to come to the [riding park] and eat the foods of the period, enjoy crafts, listen to the music of the era and see colorful vignettes of history reenacted," says Smith, who is married to a cousin of Joan Irvine Smith.

His vision for the pageant: "An event that, within three to five years, will run for five straight weekends, much like the Pageant of the Masters does today."

The idea was dreamed up by mission administrator Jerry Miller and Joan Irvine Smith, a benefactor of the 220-year-old landmark.

"We thought it was appropriate to do it at this time," says Miller, referring to the year 2000, which marks the 150th anniversary of California statehood.

"It's a mission pageant, but missions are where the history of California, as we know it, began."

More than half a million visitors tour the grounds of Mission San Juan Capistrano annually, viewing its bell tower, fountain, rose gardens, Serra Chapel and the ruins of the Great Stone Church.

"The whole purpose of the pageant is to raise funds for the preservation of the mission," Miller says. "None of the money will be used for operations or overhead."

The focus of the mission preservation effort is the Great Stone Church.

The goal of the project is not to rebuild the stone church, but to preserve its ruins for future generations. Completed in 1806, the church's roof and exterior structures collapsed during an 1812 earthquake, killing 40 people. Church walls and arches make up the remaining ruins.

The mission receives no financial support from the Catholic Diocese of Orange, which holds the property, or from any church or government agency, Miller says.

Mission revenue comes solely from admittance fees and donations.

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A simulation of the church service being conducted on the day of the 1812 quake plays a part in a fictitious romance portrayed in the pageant.

"There is a Spanish family living at the mission," Miller says of the love story, "and they have a daughter, Magdalena.

"The daughter of a Spanish don, she falls in love with a mission gardener, an Indian. Her father tells her not to see him but she disobeys, meeting him in the corners of the garden.

"She is reported, and her father brings her to a priest for her penance, which, in the form of the day, was to walk up and down the aisle during [church] services holding a penitent candle . . . ," Miller says.

"She was doing this on the morning of Dec. 8 when the church walls shook and the roof caved in.

"Whey they dug out the victims, there was Magdalena, still with her candle in her hand."

A history buff, Miller speaks with enthusiasm about another scene taken from the pageant's working script: "The first scene will portray the court of Catherine the Great, empress of all Russia," he says. "It is 1768, and a great, diplomatic ball is taking place. In the midst of it, Catherine makes an announcement that astounds her guests. She tells them that, after her conquests of Poland, the Ukraine, Crimea, she is going to expand to North America."

Catherine's announcement stimulated expeditions to California by the Spanish, Miller explains, and eventually led to Father Junipero Serra's arriving here to mark off sites for work by missionaries. "That was King Carlos III's way of protecting California against Russian expansionism," Miller notes.

To carry the historical message of the pageant to Orange County schoolchildren, organizers have developed an Educational Outreach Program.

Workbooks and audiovisual aids about mission history will be developed for classroom teachers.

Besides raising funds for mission preservation, the pageant aims to give Orange County schoolchildren an opportunity to learn about the "many rich facets of California history," Miller says.

Adds Smith: "We're focusing on the mission as a microcosm of California history.

"The pageant will be an effective tool that can help bridge cultural understanding."

Information: (714) 720-7005

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