The fountain gets to stay.
The fountain gets to stay.
Photo by Matt Coker

Belardes, Mission San Juan Capistrano Settle Lawsuit

Capistrano Dispatch reports the lawsuit pitting the Orange Diocese against Native Americans over a memorial garden installed above burial grounds at Mission San Juan Capistrano has been settled.

The dispute produced a Weekly news story on the legal spat and a cover story on the lead plaintiff, Chief David Belardes, leader of the so-called "Belardes Group" of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. That coverage also produced a follow-up story in which a rival Juaneño group that works closely with the mission questioned the Indian heritage of Belardes. There have been several related blog posts and reader comments posted on as well.

In the suit that also named the mission and the City of San Juan Capistrano as co-defendants, the Belardes Group maintained a fountain and other landscaping improvements within Monsignor Paul Martin Memorial Garden adjacent to the priests' rectory at the mission lacked proper permits and that the city had failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The city, mission and the rival Juaneño group reached an agreement whereby other offending structures were removed but the fountain, landscaping and hardscape were left in place there would be be no further ground disturbances. Belardes walked out of those talks and sued. He also won support from the California Native American Heritage Commission, which regulates activities on sacred sites.

According to the Dispatch, the settlement allows the remaining improvements to stay in place subject to the mission adhering to the following conditions:

- Pay $10,000 to defray a portion of the legal expenses incurred by the Belardes Group in bringing the lawsuit, which will then be dismissed;

-Assemble a list of all records, surveys and other written materials that are presently in the possession of the diocesan archivist and that address the boundaries of the Old Mission Cemetery. The Belardes Group notes the mission's own maps show roughly half of the cemetery, where thousands of Juaneños are known to be buried, are in the publicly accessible faux cemetery tourists pass through daily and the other portion is on the other side of the fence, buried under what is now the Rectory Garden;

-Engage appropriate archaeological and Native American consultants to monitor any future ground-disturbing activities and comply with all applicable laws and regulations governing such activities;

-Update and install a new sign in the publicly accessible portion of the Old Mission Cemetery to add more commemorative information about the Acjachemen ancestry of the persons known to be buried in the cemetery;

-Install another sign of similar form and content to be displayed on the north side of the gate separating the publicly-accessible portion from the Rectory garden portion of the Old Mission Cemetery;

-Install a permanent commemorative piece to honor those persons of Acjachemen ancestry who perished in the Church when it collapsed during the earthquake of 1812. The deadline for this is Dec. 12, 2009, the next "Day of Remembrance" event to be held at the mission's Old Stone Church. This past Dec. 12, mission Rev. Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin announced Day of Remembrance would now be an annual event.

The Dispatch includes this statement from Holquin:

"The settlement of the case will allow the mission to re-focus its efforts on preservation, education, and museum interpretation of the role of Native Americans. On behalf of the mission, I am pleased to have resolved this matter and look forward to our future projects and working to preserve Orange County's only mission for years to come."

There was also this from the Belardes Group's Tribal Council:

"We look forward to putting this lawsuit behind us and trust that our settlement will lead to a better understanding about the importance of working to preserve our history."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >