A Life Long Mission

Why Mission San Juan Capistrano entrusts its oldest form of communication to a chosen few

When I lived near Mission San Juan Capistrano, the tolling of its bells always made me stop whatever I was doing to listen. They don’t ring that often. Dignitaries, special celebrations, deaths in prominent families—that about covers it. But I was always left to wonder.

Now, when the bells ring, the texts start flying.

Nathan K. Banda, a 26-year-old bereavement counselor at the mission church, says each tolling yields dozens of texts asking what happened. Or more precisely: Who died? At a time when we communicate faster 

than ever, it's the church bell, the simplest and slowest device, that still drives the conversation in San Juan Capistrano. There’s something incredibly grounding about that. 

On Swallows Day, March 19, Banda, who has just been named the mission’s newest bell ringer, will perform his duties for the first time. If he follows tradition, he will ring the bells until one day the bells toll for him. 

 

In a place of notoriously high turnover—with most of us often changing jobs, spouses, homes, businesses, and even fortunes—it’s comforting to know that the bell-ringer position has only been held by a handful of men since the mission began keeping tabs in the late 1800s. This is not the job for a flake. And Banda, who is flanked in the photo by fellow ringers Michael Gastelum, left, and Rafael Gutierrez, is anything but.

 A descendant of founding families from the Acjachemen Nation (later the Spaniards dubbed them the Juaneños) and the Rios clan, he traces his European lineage in Orange County back 10 generations, his Native American heritage even further. His cousin, Steve Rios, a criminal defense and family attorney, still inhabits the Rios adobe on Los Rios Street, the oldest residential neighborhood in California. Banda’s ancestor, Feliciano Rios, was a leatherjacket—a Spanish soldier who arrived in the late 18th century with Father Junipero Serra. 

Banda’s heritage gives him a practical perspective: “Back in the 1700s, these bells were used to call the Indians in for lunch,” he says. “You know: Food’s ready!” They also tolled for incoming ships. 

I meet Banda on a winter day in the rose garden of the mission, just below the bell wall. He is about to practice for the first time—something he dreamed about as a kid, but never believed he’d be doing.

This day happens to be the 198th anniversary of the great earthquake of 1812. I learn that this event is the very reason the bells are hanging from a wall.  The original bell tower at the Great Stone Church came down in the earthquake. Forty churchgoers perished, but the bells survived. 

Still, no one had the heart (or the cash) to rebuild the tower. So they built the bells into a lower wall. 

Reaching for the red cords, 185-pound Banda looks like a bell ringer—powerfully built, the result of the modern gymnasium.  Gastelum, his 55-year-old tutor who began ringing the bells in 1981, and then succeeded his grandfather, Paul Arbiso, who held the job until his death in 1994 at age 99. Arbiso, in turn, learned from a Juaneño named Acu, who it’s believed started ringing the bells in the late 1800s during the era of Father St. John O’Sullivan, who started the swallows celebrations in the early 20th century.  Sadly, the birds no longer return to Capistrano, though swallows tours are still offered, and tourists still squint into the eaves of the clay-tiled roof trying to sight one of the little forked-tailed wonders. In their absence, the bells take on even greater significance—a remaining and tangible tradition.

 

As Banda grasps the cords for the first time, his face registers the gravity of his role. Only moments earlier, the bells marked the anniversary of those who perished in the 1812 earthquake. I realize when Banda rings these bells for the earthquake victims next year, he won’t simply be memorializing some ambiguous idea of his ancestors. He’ll be mourning his great—times seven—grandmother, who was killed when the church collapsed. Gastelum leans toward his student: “You’ve got to use your shoulders. Keep the rope straight. Now lean back a little.”

Banda does as hes asked and rings the big bell. Once, twice, three times.

The bells sound clear. Deep. Resonant. 

But this wasn’t the case for almost two centuries. After the earthquake, there were cracks in the big bells, and a slightly off-key sound rang out until 2001, when they were recast. The duplicates were placed in the wall, while a cracked pair was put on display in the garden, where the tower of the original stone church stood. 

Banda looks at Gastelum, relieved. "How long does the celebration last?” he asks. “About 30 seconds,” Gastelum says. “Then pause and do it again.” In later lessons, Banda will learn how the ringing varies for each ritual. 

I ask Banda if it’s a heavy burden, having a job like this for life. He answers that his family has lived in San Juan Capis-
trano for 234 years. “I knew when I was born I was going to be spending all my life here.”

After practice, Banda says it was more difficult than he imagined. Ringing the large bells delivers the biggest surprise. “All your weight is on those ropes,” he says. “Your body is really leaning back. It’s not like you’re holding the bells. It’s like the bells are holding you.” 

Maybe, I thought, the bells are holding all of us.

I suppose this is true in villages everywhere. Bells have a way of stopping time, of making us put down whatever seems so important at the moment, to sit or stand still and simply listen. They tie us with a few resonant tones to all who came before and all who will follow.

Photograph by Kyle Monk

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.