My wife and I had accomplished our mission to see all 21 of California’s old Spanish Missions, and now it was time to go home, never to see another Mission again. I set my GPS, assuming it would take us due south along Highway 101. But to my surprise, it guided us north a few miles, then pointed us west along Highway 156, for a connection to Interstate 5. I hate it when my GPS is smarter than me.
We were surprised again when we suddenly encountered a sign indicating another Mission up ahead. This was Mission San Juan Bautista. In the old days, this was the Mission enroute between Mission Carmel and Mission Santa Cruz, along the El Camnino Real (The King’s Highway).
We’d already visited this Mission in 2003, but I didn’t have a camera back then, so I didn’t have any photos of it. Also, we had lots of time on our hands, so on a whim we decided to pay a return visit and take some snapshots.
We were also motivated by nostalgia. We had fond memories of our 2003 visit. It had been a good day. We were in high spirits. And the other-worldly quality of the Mission gardens and chapel left us ensorcelled. It was then that we’d made our vow to visit all 21 Missions. We’d already visited two others in the past, so we figured that with only 18 more to go, it should be a piece of cake. Little did we know those 18 Missions would require 19 more years.
Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Father Fermin de Lasuén on June 24, 1797. June 24th is the feast day for Saint John the Baptist (who ate nothing but locusts and wild honey). Hence the name given to the Mission. But I wouldn’t want to eat there. And isn’t it interesting that even the Catholics have a Baptist church? I tried studying the Baptist religion once, but soon found myself in over my head.
The Indians in the area, along with some soldiers from a nearby presidio, were kind enough to pitch in and build an adobe church, a granary, barracks, and other structures. In fact, the builders were very ambitious, and managed to construct the widest church of all the Missions. It has three aisles, and can accommodate 1,000 worshipers.
The floor tile of the church is original, and the Mission has the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California. This Mission was built next to the San Andreas fault, but amazingly it still stands today, and much of it is as authentic as it appeared more than 200 years ago.
It’s been buffeted and damaged by many shakers, including the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, but it’s been repaired and restored after every bruising its taken. In fact, this resilient Mission has held a daily mass since 1797. Although for many years, masses were held in living quarters and storage rooms, while the church was undergoing repair.
Also, the Mission has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its foundation. One of the most beloved friars to reside here was Father Pedro Tápis. He had a talent for music, and employed a system of writing music that used colors for different notes. He used this system to train the Native American boys to sing. This boy choir performed often for visitors, earning the Mission the nickname, “the Mission of Music.”
But now let’s cue some sinister organ music. Because there’s a scary side to Mission San Juan Bautista. For it was here that Judy Barton embraced Detective Scottie Ferguson in the bell tower, after confessing her part in a murder plot, then plunged to her death after being startled by a nun.
Judy was played by Kim Novak and Scottie was portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. The movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a masterpiece that has been dubbed the greatest film of all time by the British Film Institute. Yep, it’s even greater than Citizen Kane, according to them.
The Mission and its grounds were featured prominently in Hitchcock’s 1958 flick. However, the bell tower was a fabrication, filmed at the Paramount Studio in Hollywood. Hitchcock remembered a bell tower from a visit to this Mission in his younger years, but much to his disappointment it had been demolished in 1949, due to dry rot and termites.
But he wasn’t deterred. He had a replica of the tower constructed in Paramount’s Hollywood studio, consisting of scale models and painted glass, which leaned on a little help from trick photography. For the interior drama, a 70-foot tower was constructed in the studio, that included the staircase. It was here that the intense scene was shot, of Scottie trying to ascend the steps while forcing Judy along, extracting a confession, and all the while suffering from the terrifying effects of acrophobia.
Judy Barton’s visit did not end well. But our visit to Mission San Juan Bautista was about as enchanting the second time as it was the first. The gardens were just as numinous, and the massive chapel just as inspiring as we remembered from 2003. We left this Mission of Music with harmony in our hearts, smiles on our faces, and a wish that one day we might return again.