Every year on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), swallows come back to the San Juan de Capistrano Mission in California. Legend says that the birds took refuge in the mission when a local innkeeper, tired of having to live with their noise and their mud nests stuck on his building, chased them away. The swallows built their nests in the mission and made it their regular home. This mission of romance and legend was dedicated to a fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian saint.
San Juan was born in Capistrano in southern Italy around 1385. It is believed that he was of French or German origin, since his father had come to Italy with the Duke of Naples, Louis of Anjou. San Juan began his career not in the church but in the field of law. He studied law in Perugia, and then was appointed governor of that city in 1412. In 1416 Perugia found itself at war with the powerful Malatesta Family, which controlled several other Italian cities. San Juan was imprisoned when he went to negotiate peace with the Malatestas. While in prison he had a religious awakening, and in the same year he took his religious vows and entered the Franciscan Order.
He traveled all over Italy preaching and saving souls. At one time he is said to have preached to a crowd of over 120,000 people. In 1429 he and other friars were summoned to Rome to clear themselves of charges of heresy in connection with their preaching devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. The friars chose San Juan as their spokesman and were cleared of charges.
Over the next several years San Juan was involved in the affairs of the Franciscan Order and acted as a papal emissary on different occasions. He was also a fiery orator who preached against non-believers, Jews and heretics.
In 1451 San Juan was sent to Austria as papal nuncio. He took the occasion to travel across the Holy Roman Empire combating heresy. The Hussites of Bohemia were his special target. On the one hand, he worked to prevent any conciliation between the pope and the Protestant Czechs. On the other, he preached against what he thought to be the evils of the Hussite heresy.
King George of Podebrady, who was regent at that time, did not let San Juan enter Bohemia or Prague. San Juan did preach in Moravia and Silesia, however, especially in Brno, Olomouc and Wroclaw. In fact, he was somewhat successful. He reportedly won thousands of Hussite souls over to the Roman Catholic Church.
The evangelist of the Hussite Czechs also came to be known as the “Scourge of the Jews.” Under San Juan’s fanatical influence several German princes banished the Jews from their lands, and the Polish king Kazimierz IV revoked privileges that the Jews had enjoyed in Poland. While in the Czech Lands San Juan visited the Silesian city of Wroclaw. His fiery sermons against the Jews resulted in a resurgence of hatred on the part of the townsmen. When a wealthy Jew was accused of desecrating communion bread, San Juan set up a court of inquiry. Some forty of the city’s Jewish residents were tortured and burned at the stake. Hundreds of others were driven from the city. The Inquisition visited the Czech Lands along with San Juan de Capistrano.
In 1453 the city of Constantinople fell to the Turks as a Moslem tide swept over the Balkan Peninsula. Soon the Turks were at the gates of Hungary. San Juan helped raise an army to defend Hungary and Central Europe from the infidel onslaught, and fought with the great Hungarian warrior John of Hunyadi at the siege of Belgrade in 1456. Imagine, John of Hunyadi wielding his sword and San Juan de Capistrano his cross, inspiring the Christian troops to victory. Belgrade and Hungary were saved, for the time being, but both great leaders died from the plague caused by the multitude of unburied rotting corpses.
San Juan de Capistrano was an historical figure whose impact was seen differently by different people. To Roman Catholics he was seen as a defender of the faith and a saint worthy of veneration. To the Hussites of Bohemia he was a religious zealot and redoubtable foe. To the Jews he was an intolerant fanatic who persecuted them and fanned the flames of hatred against them. To the Christians of Central Europe he was a hero who helped delay Turkish conquest for seventy more years, when Hungary finally fell at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. To the people of the United States he has yet another significance.
San Juan de Capistrano was beatified in 1694, and canonized in 1724. In 1776 Spanish friars dedicated a mission to him in California. It is to this mission dedicated to the evangelist of the Hussite Czechs that the famed swallows return every year. Even before that, however, in 1731, just seven years after his canonization, Spanish friars dedicated a mission to San Juan in what is now San Antonio, Texas. Even in the earliest days of Texas history one can trace connections to the Czech Lands.
– Robert Janak
“San Juan de Capistrano,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), February 1999, page 5.