The area is bounded by the back wall of the massive old stone church, the east chapel wall, the portion of the mission’s perimeter wall that runs parallel to El Camino Real and a wall that was created 50 years ago to cut the Old Cemetery in half and essentially give the rectory a private back yard.

Archival photos show crosses dotting that lot. Those markers are long gone. O’Sullivan, who led the mission from 1910 to 1933, installed the first Rectory Garden there, but it went to weed. The homeless were once allowed to camp there, but it mostly served as a storage area for landscaping equipment.

Near the middle of the wall bisecting the Old Cemetery is a locked, wooden gate. If you are tall enough to peek over it, you’ll see the new Rectory Garden with its lush lawn and plants, automatic sprinklers and large fountain, with surrounding paving and brick work. Against two sections of wall, new planting soil has been piled into mounds with knee-high religious statues plopped atop them. Below the mounds are cement footings for a large brick fireplace and a built-in barbecue and food station that were ripped out after Belardes caught wind of them.

You won't see the Rectory Garden on tours of Mission San Juan Capistrano. It's behind a wall and locked gate. Tribal members say ancestors are buried beneath it.
Matt Coker
You won't see the Rectory Garden on tours of Mission San Juan Capistrano. It's behind a wall and locked gate. Tribal members say ancestors are buried beneath it.
A large stone fireplace stood here before Chief David Belardes' 
complaints led to its removal. This statue rests on soil covering the fireplace's cement footings.
Matt Coker
A large stone fireplace stood here before Chief David Belardes' complaints led to its removal. This statue rests on soil covering the fireplace's cement footings.

In the spring of 2007, the mission’s current pastor, Father Art Holquin, decided to turn what he called a “rat-infested lot” into his Rectory Garden honoring Monsignor Martin. Work was completed quickly so the garden would be ready in time for a party attended by a cardinal flying in from Rome. The affair went off without a hitch, with music played and alcohol served on the ground beneath which Juaneños are buried.

By city law, construction permits should have been pulled. By state and federal law, such work should have included an archaeologist or at least a Native American monitor to minimize disturbances to sacred grounds. None of that happened. At Belardes’ urging, the city issued a stop-work order in July 2007, but by then, the Rectory Garden was just about completed. The matter went before the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission and the City Council, which ordered removal of the fireplace and barbecue but allowed their underground footings, some hardscape and the fountain to remain because it was feared removing them would further disturb the sacred grounds. Holquin apologized. Twice.

Belardes refuses to sign off on the compromise because, “I can’t say it’s not illegal if it is.” He almost sounds apologetic. The only solution he sees is returning the grounds to their previous condition. That’s why he is pressing his lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Stock’s courtroom, where an opening brief from his lawyers, who are working pro bono, is due March 16.

Ed Conner, the Diocese of Orange’s attorney and longtime Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano parishioner, accuses Belardes of making a mountain out of an oversight because he so despises Holquin and the mission’s lay executive director, Mechelle Lawrence-Adams. Conner spoke on behalf of both for this story.

“Our bottom-line contention is the Rectory Garden is part of the Old Cemetery, but any excavation that was done for the foundation and fireplace, nothing was discovered,” Conner says. “It looks beautiful. Nobody who has seen it objects to it other than David Belardes, and I don’t know what his point is, unless it is to pay his attorney fees, rip everything out and put it back the way it was.

“The surprising thing to me is nobody knows where the burials are. No one’s found any remains. They don’t know how far the Old Cemetery goes into the Rectory Garden.”

The cemetery, wherever the hell it is, is Catholic, not Juaneño, Conner maintains.

“There was no desecration,” he says. “Grass, flowers and a fountain—that is not desecrating anybody. This is much ado about nothing.”

*     *     *

Making his case before the Native American Heritage Commission, the state agency that protects Indian remains and cultural resources that met Dec. 12 at San Juan Capistrano City Hall, Belardes said, “I worked for Camp Pendleton, Rancho Mission Viejo, the Irvine Co., all the Aliso Viejos, the toll roads, state parks, Caltrans. I’ve done this for 30 years and forgotten more than I’ve done.”

For years, he has been the go-to Indian for Orange County developers in need of a Native American monitor or most-likely Juaneño descendant to sign off on their projects. He has worked alongside company-hired archaeologists to oversee countless removals and reburials of remains as the building industry seemingly covers every square inch of open land in cement, stucco and asphalt.

It is tribal custom—and state law—to return Indian bones, teeth and other remains back to the earth from which they were plucked as quickly as possible. Because there is also a desire to keep these locations secret to prevent further ground disturbances, ceremonial reburials are generally conducted in private. That secrecy and willingness to work with the entities disturbing the dead in the first place foments the kind of mistrust that’s led to the fracturing of the Juaneños into at least four factions.

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