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The amazing swallows of San Juan Capistrano

What do cliff swallows have to do with the Feast of St. Joseph?

“When the swallows come back to Capistrano…” Cue the music!

But this isn’t just a nice song. Every year around the feast of St. Joseph, the cliff swallows really do return from their winter abodes in South America to the California mission town of San Juan Capistrano.

Founded by St. Junípero Serra himself, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the 7th of 21 missions the Franciscans established throughout California. It houses the Serra Chapel, the last remaining chapel in California where the saint himself celebrated Mass—and which also happens to be the oldest standing building in the state.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

They say this Mission has a special connection to the swallows, thanks to Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, pastor from 1910-1933. An extraordinary priest who undertook a massive restoration of the Mission, Fr. O’Sullivan deserves his own article and will get one in a future Get Fed email.

In his book Capistrano Nights, Fr. O’Sullivan relates that he was walking along a street in town and saw a shopkeeper knocking the swallows’ mud nests off the eaves of his shop. When the priest asked what he was doing, the shopkeeper said he was ridding his shop of those “dirty birds.”

Fr. O’Sullivan then said: “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”

The very next day, the good priest found the swallows building nests at the Mission! The swallows found happy homes amid the venerable old stone edifices of this historic and sacred place.

Cliff swallows peering out from their abodes

The swallows depart every October for their winter grounds in Argentina, and Fr. O’Sullivan noticed that they tended to return around the Feast of St. Joseph every year. So he instituted a festival in honor of the saint and to welcome the swallows back to the Mission. The festival continues to this day!

That’s the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano—a Catholic tradition with roots right here in America.

Y’know, we’ve got a lot to be proud of as American Catholics. St. Junípero and the priests of the California missions are just a few of the Catholics who played vital roles in establishing and sanctifying our country. Show your patriotic spirit with our bestselling U.S. Pledge of Allegiance Garden Flag, featuring our beloved flag with the Pledge inscribed on the white stripes. A good reminder to you and anyone who sees it to pray for our country, too! Available today at The Catholic Company!

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