The Enduring Popularity of Traditional Art

Mission San Juan Capistrano, now enhanced by a spectacular decorative altarpiece, is Orange County’s third largest tourist attraction, after Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.

On March 19, 2007, a massive piece of traditional religious art was unveiled to delighted parishioners at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in Southern California. The Grand Retablo, or decorative altarpiece, stands 42-feet high by 30-feet wide and weighs 16 tons.

It was the handiwork of 84 craftsmen employed by Talleres de Arte Granda, a liturgical arts manufacturer in Madrid, Spain. The total cost of the piece was $2 million, money bequeathed in the will of a pious donor. Its new home is Mission San Juan Capistrano, arguably the best known, maintained, and operated of California’s 21 historic Spanish missions. Father Arthur Holquin, the mission’s pastor, observed, “Our response to the Grand Retablo has been overwhelmingly positive. It has helped make the basilica a truly fitting pilgrimage site for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the mission each year.”

He added that the Grand Retablo was only one part of an overall Capital Campaign to maintain, upgrade, and beautify the Basilica Church, which was built in 1986.

Four months after its unveiling, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, traveled halfway around the globe to pray before, and solemnly bless and dedicate, the retablo. His visit included the crowning of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Diocese of Orange, in which Mission San Juan Capistrano is located.


Catholicism’s origins in California came from the Spanish missionaries who first began colonizing the Golden State in 1769. In the following 52 years they established 21 missions, the seventh of which was Mission San Juan Capistrano. Blessed Junipero Serra founded the mission in 1776; its purpose was to bring Roman Catholicism to the Indians as well as to teach them building, farming, ranching, and other trades to improve their standard of living. The Capistrano mission sits on a 10-acre site in south Orange County, an hour and a half’s drive from downtown Los Angeles.

Today, the Capistrano mission is both a historical site and a functioning parish. The historical site includes original adobe buildings, sacred artwork, colorful gardens, majestic fountains, and winding paths. It is visited by hundreds of thousands each year, including 80 thousand school children, making it Orange County’s third largest tourist attraction, after Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.

The highlight of a tour of the mission grounds is Serra Chapel, one of the state of California’s oldest buildings, constructed shortly after the mission’s founding. Father Serra himself celebrated Mass there. Made of thick adobe walls, it houses centuries-old Spanish artwork, the most prominent of which is the Golden Retablo, on which the Grand Retablo would later be based.

The Golden Retablo is estimated to be around 400 years old, older than the mission itself, and was constructed in Spain. Originally planned to decorate the Los Angeles Cathedral in the early 20th century, it was instead given as a gift to the mission in the 1920s.

Serra Chapel is small, seating fewer than 200, so in 1797 the padres began construction of a much larger church of stone. Indian workers hauled in stone from miles around, either on their backs or in ox-drawn carettas. A stonemason from Mexico, Isidro Aguilar, directed the laborers. However, he died in the middle of the project. The Indians and padres completed the church on their own, taking nine years. The Great Stone Church opened with much pomp and celebration in 1806, drawing dignitaries from miles around.

Tragedy struck Great Stone Church on December 8, 1812, however, when a massive earthquake hit just before morning Mass. Much of the structure collapsed, killing 42 worshippers inside. Some historians today speculate that the lack of direction of a professional stonemason throughout the project could have been responsible for the collapse.

The ruins of the Great Stone Church remain today, and based on it is the design of the Basilica Church, including its cruciform-style architecture and distinctive decorative markings.

In the 19th century, the government of California changed three times. For the first two decades, when the missions enjoyed their greatest prosperity, the Spanish controlled the state. In 1821, a revolution in Mexico led to Mexican independence and a Mexican governor of California. Mexican leadership only lasted 27 years, when the Americans took control. During this turbulent time, many of the Spanish padres were forced to leave the missions, and the missions entered into a period of abandonment and decay. In fact, from 1845-65, an English rancher who had adapted to the Mexican culture, Juan Forster, purchased and took up residence in Mission San Juan Capistrano. The American government returned the Capistrano mission—the 10-acre church site, but not its vast lands—to the Catholic Church in 1865.

In 1910, Father John O’Sullivan, a parish priest in poor health who came to Southern California in search of a warmer, drier climate, was named pastor of the Capistrano mission. He fell in love with its aging adobe buildings and local community, and went to work lovingly restoring it. He continued preservation efforts on its historic structures, including Serra Chapel, which had been converted to a storage area by a local farmer. In the 1920s, Father O’Sullivan returned it to its sacred use, and secured the donation of the Golden Retablo from the bishop of Los Angeles.


Located alongside the historic site is Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, which today includes a parish church and school, serving over six thousand families. As the 20th century progressed, church leaders recognized the need for a new parish church. The building of the new church was prompted by the growing size of the parish community, and the limited space historic Serra Chapel offered.

Some thought was given to building the new parish church on the site of the Great Stone Church, incorporating the old structure into the new, but the plan was considered unworkable and was abandoned. Hence, a new parish church was built on the opposite end of the mission grounds.

Grand plans were laid out for the new parish church, including a retablo, portico, and choir loft, but many of these elements were removed as costs escalated.

Architect John Bartlett of Pasadena, who had designed many churches in the Los Angeles archdiocese, served as its designer. Although Bartlett had designed many churches in a modern style, he was directed to follow the cruciform style of the historic mission’s Great Stone Church. The new parish church was completed in 1986.


“The end result was that while the exterior of the church was grand, its interior was rather Spartan,” observed Father Holquin.

A decade ago, the idea of a retablo was resurrected, and by the early 2000s, plans were in high gear. Playing an important role in resurrecting the retablo was Kory Kramer, a long-time parishioner and business associate with the Busch Firm in Irvine, California.

“I was sitting in church one day in 2001, and I realized I was tired of looking at that plain white wall,” remarked Kramer, referring to the 45-foot wall behind the sanctuary. “I knew it was in the master plan to install a retablo, and I thought it was time to get things moving again.”

Kramer recommended to the pastor at the time, Msgr. Paul Martin, that he seek a proposal from Talleres de Arte Granda. Talleres was involved in the renovation of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where Kramer had previously lived. Kramer recalled, “I was impressed by their workmanship and thought they could do something nice for the basilica.”

Talleres de Arte Granda had also done work for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Colorado, the Seton Hall University Chapel in South Orange, New Jersey, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, and the Motherhouse Chapel of the Dominican Sisters in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Our purpose is to inspire people to pray and connect with God,” explained Manuel Suarez, director of project development of Talleres de Arte Granda. “Ultimately, all we do is for the greater glory of God.”

Talleres de Arte Granda does projects in both the United States and Europe, both modern and traditional designs. Suarez noted, however, that there was an increasing trend toward the traditional.

Retablo means “behind the table” (or altar). Retablos are popular in Hispanic culture, and typically include images of the Blessed Trinity, the crucified Christ, cherubs, statues of the saints, and other such images to help the worshipper lift his mind to better contemplate the supernatural.

As Father Holquin explained, “A retablo is a uniquely designed and fabricated piece of art, whose intended impact is to bring its viewer closer to God and the saints through the experience of its beauty.”

The next major hurdle was securing the funding. Arthur Birtcher, a prominent Orange County developer, parishioner, Mission Preservation Society director, and member of the Mission San Juan Capistrano Preservation Foundation (which raises funds for the mission’s historic preservation), helped locate a donor, Velma O’Brien. O’Brien, now deceased, left her entire estate, valued at $2 million, for the creation and installation of the retablo.

Although planning began under the leadership of the mission pastor, Msgr. Paul Martin, the work continued under the leadership of the new pastor, Father Arthur Holquin, upon Msgr. Martin’s retirement in 2003.

The retablo was a key component of the basilica’s interior upgrades, which also included new lighting, a new sound system, and a new heating and air conditioning system. A donation of nearly $500,000 from the Thomas J. and Erma Jean Tracy Family Foundation also allowed for the installation of a new tabernacle and altar.

An appropriate design was selected, based on Serra Chapel’s Golden Retablo. It included images of the Holy Trinity, Blessed Junipero Serra, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also included in the piece are handcarved images of cherubs, swallows, and grapes.

The retablo was created in the 17th and 18th century baroque style. It is made of cedar wood painted to look like marble; typical practice in the New World at the time due to the scarcity of marble.

Cedar was selected because it is a hard wood and resistant to termites. It is scarce in Spain, so the wood was shipped in from Brazil. Transportation of the completed retablo, in fact, was delayed for a week as Spanish officials verified that the wood was Brazilian.

The Grand Retablo took 14 months to complete. Part of the process involved preparing the Basilica Church; its previous altar was removed and 15-foot pylons were placed in the ground to support the 16-ton piece.

The actual installation took just over two weeks, just in time for Mission San Juan Capistrano’s biggest annual celebration on March 19, the Return of the Swallows. Once unveiled, many parishioners were moved to tears. “It was beyond what I thought possible,” said Kramer.


Cardinal Levada, a friend and former seminary professor of Father Holquin’s, took a special interest in the project when he first learned of it. He readily agreed to come to be part of its dedication. The ceremony began on July 20, 2007 with a special evening prayer service. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed for an all-night vigil. The following day, the bishop of Orange, Tod Brown, presided over a ceremony that included anointing the altar with chrism and the deposition of relics.

The installation of the Grand Retablo was a huge undertaking, made possible through the dedication of mission priests, parishioners, and friends. It has become a beautiful as well as peaceful place for both parishioners and tourists to pray. It is also a demonstration of the enduring popularity of traditional forms of liturgical art, and its ability to connect with the faithful.


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About Jim Graves 225 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.