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Reached by telephone, Knox Mellon, executive director of the nonprofit California Missions Foundation and formerly the state historical-preservation officer under two California governors, says mission-rehabilitation work must adhere to standards set by the U.S. secretary of the interior. Anyone who seeks his foundation’s guidance will be given a list of certified archaeologists who can make sure those standards are met.

“There is always a great desire to preserve the historic fabric—the more the better,” Mellon says. “There are instances and situations where some historic fabric needs to be sacrificed. Every effort should be made to minimize what we call an adverse effect. Optimum is not to destroy any, but if some must be destroyed, try to minimize it.”

He is quite aware of tensions between missions and tribes when renovation clashes with preservation and especially how answering to multiple tribal leaders compounds frustrations at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

John Gilhooley
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.
John Gilhooley
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.

“What they desperately need is federal recognition because that brings money,” Mellon said of the Juaneños. “When I was the state historical-preservation officer, the feds would tell me over and over again, ‘We’re not going to stick our necks out because there are multiple factions.’ The feds do not want to spend money where there is controversy. There are three factions [actually four] in San Juan Capistrano that still are not able to get together and gain what they all need desperately and what they all want. I can see the frustration everyone sees there. The leadership of San Juan Capistrano is desirous of doing the right thing. It is a very awkward situation.”

He said he has much respect for Belardes, who sits on his foundation’s board. “I know it is very frustrating for him to try and push ahead, knowing he feels he is doing the best for that faction of the tribe he represents,” Mellon said. “But, you know, if you talk to different groups, suddenly you find there are different interpretations.”

*     *     *

As he is being driven to his home down in the San Juan Capistrano flats, Belardes recalls a meeting he attended years ago at which an associate of Monsignor Martin referred to “the Roman Catholics’ mission.”

“This is the Juaneños’ mission, I told them,” Belardes says with a sly smile. “Without the Juaneños, there would be no mission.” He pauses for a beat.

“They didn’t like that much.”

mcoker@ocweekly.com

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