The story of the Great Stone Church in the Mission San Juan Capistrano is a sad one. The church went up quickly: construction began in 1797 and was complete in 1806. It was modeled after Byzantine style cathedrals found in Europe and considered a North American masterpiece.
The story begins on the morning of December 8, 1812 during the morning mass — a favourite with the young Juaneño mothers who prefer to worship early in the day. As these young mothers sat on the floor of the newly built church, a 7.2 earthquake hit San Juan Capistrano. The priest yelled for parishioners to run to the alter — where the building was most stable. However, some ran to the doors and quickly discovered they were damaged and no one could leave. As this all played out, the foundation of the bell tower crumbled and the great tower collapsed through the roof killing 40 neophytes and two boys in the bell tower. Those who were at the alter survived.
The church was too damaged to use again. It was later preserved in memory of those who died in the collapse. All of the victims are buried in the Mission graveyard.
Two cracked church bells (San Vicente and San Juan — 1796) were eventually recovered and put on display where the original bell tower once stood.