Historic Families and ancient traditions came together Saturday morning at the Old Mission Cemetery in San Juan Capistrano.
More than 300 people attended a ceremony that included a mass of remembrance and a blessing of a new altar on a plot of land held sacred by local Catholics and Native Americans.
A mass of remembrance is a traditional catholic ceremony where participants gather to pay respects to the departed.
“It’s a time when we stop and remember the people that [we] journeyed with in our lives,” said Father Jim Nieblas Jr, who helped lead the ceremonies. “Sometimes we don’t get a chance to say, really 'Thank you.'”
The river-rock and sand stone altar also includes two pedestals, one with a statue of Mary and another with a statue of Jesus Christ. The altar and the pedestals were constructed by Boy Scout Justin Burger as an Eagle Scout service project.
For Jerry Nieblas, a descendant of historic families, the new altar has been a long time goal.
“The altar and the pedestals have been my dream for eight years, and there was a lot of politics involved in getting it done,” Jerry Nieblas said.
Representatives from about 20 historic San Juan Capistrano families and of the Juaneño tribe of the Acjachemen Nation—whose ancestors helped build Mission San Juan Capistrano—attended the event commemorating the new altar, according to Jerry Nieblas, president of the Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee and cousin of Jim Nieblas.
The event also included a presentation of the Eucharist as well as traditional songs from some of the descendants of local Native American tribes.
After leading three "spirit songs," Richard Mendez, a member of Juaneño tribe, pointed out a red-tailed hawk flying above the cemetery and said that sometimes the departed contact the living during the songs.
“It looks like the ancestors gave us a treat, a blessing,” Mendez said.
Since the early 1800s about 400 to 500 people have been buried in the cemetery, according to Jerry Nieblas, who also has Native American ancestors.
“It’s cared for and it’s protected it by two different cultures: the Native American culture—we consider this sacred burial ground—and the church culture,” Jerry Nieblas said. “It’s consecrated ground.”
Burger, 15, began the project in September and finished on Wednesday, and said the project took about seven days of work over two months. He said that while he supervised the project, many other volunteers helped it come together.
“It feels good to know that this really means a lot to people,” Burger said, after the remembrance mass. “It’s something that can stay there forever.”
Kevin Prendiville, whose son Michael helped Burger with the altar construction, said the event was “a very moving ceremony.”
Prendiville also praised Justin for his work.
“This was quite a project,” Kevin said a few feet from new altar. “There was [a] collaboration of a lot of people … A lot of it's handmade and Justin and his family and the volunteers did a great job.”
“Later in life they’ll say ‘Wow, I made history,'” said Jim Nieblas Jr, about the volunteers.
“They’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s a part of me. I can walk in here and say “I made that.”’”
After the mass, priests blessed two new guardian angel memorials that honor the infants and children interred at the Old Mission Historic Cemetery.
The event was sponsored by the Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee and Diocese of Orange.