The swallows would swirl through San Juan Capistrano, rising likea mist from the sea every March 19. Or so the legend goes. In fact, theblue-feathered birds sometimes reached California as early as mid-February,and when they arrived at the end of their long trek from Argentina, theywould infest the place like happy locusts, plastering their gourd-shapednests among the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners--anywhere theycould get their colonies to stick to the old stucco and adobe of the missionfounded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.
They were cliff swallows, Hirundo pyrrhonota, the woman from thelocal Audubon Society explained, speaking in the rapid, inflectionless voiceof someone reading, for the sixth time that day, from a memo stuck to herdesk with yellowing strips of cellophane tape. Lacking the deeply forked tailof the better-known barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, cliff swallows are knownby their white forehead, buff rump, and short, squared-off tail feathers.They gather in large flocks, fluttering their wings above their heads in acharacteristic motion while gathering mud for their nests. And theyhaven't returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano--darting past theold Serra Chapel and flitting through the ruins of the Great StoneChurch--for nearly twenty years.
Not that the mission hasn't tried to win them back.What's Capistrano without its swallows? All the mission bells will ring,/ The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano,the most popular song of 1939 told the nation, and for years after theswallows disappeared, you could see the groundskeepers out making artificialmud puddles with their green plastic hoses. In the 1990s, someone had thenotion of hiring a local potter to fool the birds, and the mission is stilldotted with clay nests: ceramic lures that failed to bring the square-tailednest builders, Hirundo pyrrhonota, back to hear the bells.
There's a figure in all this, I think--a metaphor, perhaps,or a synecdoche--for the condition of American Catholicism. Its long history,certainly, from the Spanish colonial beginnings on. But, most of all, SanJuan Capistrano seems an image for recent decades--because sometime around1970, the leaders of the Catholic Church in America took a stick and knockeddown all the swallows' nests.
It was merely insane. An entire culture nested in the crossbeamsand crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And itwasn't until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed torealize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapelsand flitting through the cathedrals. They provided beauty, and eccentricity,and life. What they did, really, was provide Catholicism to the CatholicChurch in America, and none of the multimedia Masses and liturgicalextravaganzas in the years since--none of the decoy nests and artificialpuddles--has managed to call them home. All the mission bells will ring, /The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.
And yet, one can see signs, here and there, that the swallowsmight have begun their return, mostly through the pro-life movement. Initself, that is a disturbing image: Roe v. Wade as the event that mosttransformed American Catholicism over the last thirty years. And from theoutward and visible signs, the new culture appears much, much thinner thanthe old; Catholic literature, to take an easy example, remains barely ashadow of what it was in the 1950s. Still, in ways that no one has fullytraced, opposition to the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion decree hashelped undo the separation of Catholic culture from the Catholic Church.
There's something sad about that line, like a character in aGraham Greene or maybe a James T. Farrell novel, defrocked and disgraced, whoafter a few drinks starts to mumble about how, by God, he doesn't carewhat anybody says, he's still a priest--louder and louder, while theanxious barmaid maneuvers him toward the door. But maybe the greater sadnessis how dated the entire situation in Orange County seems. The whole diocesehas a fossilized, fly-in-amber feeling to it.
Late this spring, a friend called from Orange County, chatteringexcitedly about how she had just seen a swallow at the Mission San JuanCapistrano. Only one, and she couldn't find where it had made its nest.Still, there it was, flittering through the ruins of the Great Stone Churchwith the strange, carefree flight the birds always seem to have: a smoothcoasting, interrupted with sudden swoops and sideslips, like a hang-gliderwith the hiccups. "Maybe they will return," she said. "Maybethey really will." All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choirwill sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.
Like the famous return of swallows to San Juan Capistrano every year, humans have for more than 40 years flocked to Wausau at the end of the summer for the "Birds in Art" exhibit. Hosted by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N 12th St., the exhibit features 100 works selected by an esteemed jury. The opening weekend is also part of the citywide and family-friendly Artrageous event. More info: lywam.org. 041b061a72