Rain, Sage, Chants, Prayers, Apologies All Wrapped Up in a Rainbow

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After turning a corner leading to the Mission San Juan Capistrano courtyard, participants leaving this morning's wet prayer ceremony in honor of Native Americans who perished in an 1812 earthquake that toppled the Old Stone Church were treated to a bright, magnificent rainbow hanging over the western sky.

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.

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Members of the Belardes group and other Juaneño factions had been invited to the "Day of Remembrance" within the past couple weeks. They were told they could enter the mission grounds at 7:30 a.m. to burn sage and pray for their ancestors for an hour before a Holquin "press conference." But no one did much other than dodge raindrops. Asked what was going on, Miles replied, "I don't know." Later he was conversing--and playfully joking--with his opposing counsel in the Rectory Garden case, Ed Conner, who represents the Diocese of Orange. Both are shown here. Trial is set to begin in June.


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.

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A Native American woman standing to my side said "this is embarrassing" as an older gentleman passed burning sage over some who chose to have themselves cleansed. But the chants, prayers both silent and vocal for the 40 people who died in the Dec. 8, 1812, earthquake and, yes, even the burning sage did make for an experience at least as moving as the Catholic masses held across the way.

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."

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"Thank you, Father Holquin, your comments were wonderful to hear," said Lawrence-Adams, who then instructed Juaneños to pick up stones with the names of earthquake victims and take them with them to a mission bell that would be rung in each person's honor.

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.

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