Rain, Sage, Chants, Prayers, Apologies All Wrapped Up in a Rainbow
That would not be the day's last miracle. The mission's clerical leader, Father Art Holquin, delivered his "strongest apology" to date for the desecration of sacred Native American burial grounds at the historical landmark two years ago. That's not what Holquin called it, that's how it was described by two of his harshest critics, lawyer Stephen Miles and client Joyce Perry, the tribal manager with a Juaneño Band of Mission Indians group.
However, as nice as it was to hear the priest's mea culpa, it was not enough to convince Miles, Perry and the Juaneño group's leader, Chief David Belardes, to drop their lawsuit against the mission, the city of San Juan Capistrano and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange over the installation of an elaborate Rectory Garden over land mission maps dating back more than 100 years identifies as the Old Cemetery.
Peering from under her umbrella, Perry says, "This is ridiculous" as rain continues to fall on people milling about. She was about to leave when Belardes and Sonia Johnston, who is chairwoman of another Juaneno group, led followers to the remains of the Old Stone Church facing Ortega Highway for an informal remembrance.
Speaking of moving, it was quickly on to a meeting room in the old barracks building, where the mission's executive director, Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, asked the 50 or so people present, "Did everyone see the rainbow? I think that's a good sign." She then turned it over to Holquin, who welcomed the elders of the Acjachemen Nation. He called the Old Stone Church grounds "hallowed by your ancestors" and said, "your presence honors us." He noted that those who perished had gathered for morning mass and would later be buried in Catholic ceremonies. "This mission was largely built by your ancestors," he said. "This Great Stone Church was the work of their hands."
Holquin said he was "honored" to have been named head pastor of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in July 2003 and has always striven to honor Juaneños of the past and present. In that spirit, he said Dec. 8 would become an annual Day of Remembrance at the mission. But he conceded "decisions made by me unfortunately failed to strengthen" the mission's ties with Juaneños. He considered the Rectory Garden, which was installed without legally required city permits and Native American monitors, to be the most egregious of these. The fallout from that "has taken a life of its own," Holquin said before apologizing, in particular to Juaneños in the room.
The priest said he tried within the past year to resolve the matter without litigation, but that that has obviously not come to pass. He held out hope for a "peaceful" resolution, then said the people who are suing the mission falsely claim to represent all Juaneños. Now, he lamented, thousands and thousands of dollars will have to be spent defending the mission instead of supporting educational programs and other vital needs. It was his "sincere hope" that others would recognize that his regrets are heartfelt "so my staff and I can continue to be good servants on behalf of the mission."
Belardes was not among those who took a stone to the bell, but he did watch and reflect on Holquin's address. The problem remains, he said, that the mission's six-year-old executive staff does not know or appreciate enough of the mission's history, and he worried that it will be lost unless changes are made.
Miles was mostly pleased with Holquin's address, although he took issue with the idea that Belardes is claiming to represent all Juaneños. The lawsuit spells out who exactly is suing the mission, Miles said. And he suggested a settlement could be in the offing. See, a little rain between opposing attorneys never hurt anyone.
As he walked back into the barracks for a coffee and muffins reception, Holquin said he was hopeful his attempt at reconciliation will help. He's also realistic. He said Belardes is difficult to work with and, since his third week as head pastor, personally insulting. It is human nature not to want to work with someone who is openly unfriendly to you, Holquin said, "and I'm human." A slight man (with a firm handshake), Holquin also wanted it made clear that "I am not an ogre. Do I look like an ogre?"
He called it "a shame" that Belardes' vast knowledge of the mission is going to waste because no one wants to work with the chief. Instead, Holquin prefers to work with a parishoner, Anthony Rivera, who would later tell me he leads the only true Juaneño group.
Such a mess. But the rainbow sure was pretty.