Our historic and wonderful old Mission was named for an Italian Saint, John Capistran, but since this was a Spanish Mission they used the Spanish version, San Juan Capistrano. He was born about 1385 in Capestrano in the Kingdom of Naples which is now part of Italy. As our community grew around the Mission it became known by the Mission’s name as well. St. John led a rather interesting life in nobility, as a governor, fervent priest and military leader.
He was born in nobility but his father died early and his devoted mother taught him primarily Latin then sent him off to attend the University of Perugia. Here he studied civil and canon law with great success. He married the daughter of a prominent citizen in 1412 and King Ladislaus of Naples appointed him Governor of Perugia. John zealously eradicated corruption and bribery but there was a family, the Malatesta, who controlled several cities and had many dissenters. John was selected to bring about peace. For his efforts the Malatestas cast him into prison. His treatment was bad, the King had abandoned him, and he meditated about the unfairness of all earthly things. After he was released he made a decision to join the religious orders. Either his wife had died or he received special dispensation to join the Franciscan Order. He studied theology and was ordained in 1425. Before he was accepted in the Franciscan monastery, the Superior ordered him to solemnly renounce the vanities of the world. John rode through Perugia mounted backwards on a donkey, wearing a paper miter on which his greatest sins were listed.
Fr. John traveled all over Italy and incessantly toiled for the salvation of souls. He became so popular that great crowds would gather to hear him speak. They would even erect pulpits in their city plazas and stop all traffic to accommodate him. At one time two Friars were accused of heresy. They were brought to Rome for trial and Fr. John was appointed their spokesman. So successful was his defense, that they were acquitted.
Fr. John was one of those ascetic priests that not only accepted the Franciscan rules of poverty but also mortification of the flesh. He ate only once a day and rarely any meat. He slept on boards and rested only 3 to 4 hours at night. He also celebrated mass everyday with intense fervor. His sermons quite often preached against frivolous fashions and amusements of time and against ladies’ great quantity of hair, perfumes, and superfluous fineries. Also cards, dice, and similar things abounding in idle society he railed against. He had made a great bonfire of all these useless and unworthy items and did this in many cities of Europe to demonstrate the uselessness of it all.
The Popes called upon Fr. John frequently for various commissions as a papal legate to Kingdoms throughout Europe. After Mahomet II captured Constantinople in 1453, he was so flushed with victory that he wanted to rule Christendom. He began an invasion of Hungary with his hordes. By this time many in Europe considered Fr. John a saint and Pope Calixtus III summoned him to raise a crusade against the Turks. The Turks were at the gates to Belgrade and its king fled. The governor of Hungary strongly urged Fr. John to come to his aid against Mahomet. Armed with only a crucifix and a banner with the initials of the Holy Name, I.H.S., Fr. John led a wing of the Christian army. His speech strongly persuaded the despairing army to conquer the enemy or die as martyrs. This so aroused his army over the superior forces that Mahomet’s hordes fled in wild confusion. “The Cross had triumphed over the Crescent.”
The stresses of his most active and austere life and the exhaustion of the war, weakened him and he was seized by a fever and other ailments. In his dying moments he lay on the bare floor and passed away in 1456 at the age of seventy-one. After the usual research on his past and miracles attributed to him he was canonized a Saint by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724.
An interesting praise by former Pope Pius II who knew him, wrote that “He was short of stature, already old, desiccated, thin, shrunken, having nothing but skin on his bones, he was always gay and indefatigable. Every day he preaches before twenty and even thirty thousand persons, clarifying the thorniest problems, pleasing the simple as much as the learned. He pronounces his discourses in Latin and an interpreter translates.”