The Mystery of the Wounded Crucifix

Aug. 14, 2011, Mystery Crucifix

Photo: Crucifix on display at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

I was reading the Sunday papers with my eye out for historical items and saw Mike Anton’s piece about artifacts on display at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Anton says: The story goes that around 1900 a man embroiled in a business dispute unloaded his anger — and his pistol — inside a chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Miraculously, no one was hurt. But the 18th century silver cross likely used by mission founder Father Junipero Serra took one near the top.

There’s something in the picture that makes me wonder about this anecdote. Do you see anything?

Let’s dig into this a bit. 

We find this version of the tale in a 2005 article in the Orange County Register:

There are various stories as to the origin of the bullet hole. According to locals, one story involves a prominent San Juan Capistrano family who was involved in a business dispute. One member visited the Chapel to soothe his nerves but instead became enraged. He was carrying a pistol, and began taking shots at various artifacts in the Church, resulting in what is a hole in the crucifix, tearing off the halo over Christ’s head.

The shooter was immediately repentant, and reported his deed to the Priest. He offered to repair the crucifix, but the Padre thought it better to leave the hole as a reminder of how dangerous unrestrained anger can be.

Curiously, we do not find this story in sources published after 1900, when the incident supposedly occurred:

“Old Mission Stories of California,”  1917.

“San Juan Capistrano Mission” by Zephyrin Engelhardt, 1922

 “Capistrano Nights,” by Charles Francis Saunders and Father St. John O’Sullivan, 1930

“San Juan Capistrano,” by Pamela Hallan-Gibson, Don Tryon, Mary Ellen Tryon, San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, 2005

Nor do we find it in the historical archives of The Times.


OK, how about Factiva?

Orange County Register, Aug. 20, 2004

This appears in Susan Gill Vardon’s interview with Jerry Nieblas, identified as the mission’s new artifacts coordinator:

Take the silver crucifix with the bullet hole.

In the early 1900s, a member of a prominent San Juan Capistrano family — Nieblas won’t disclose who — got angry over a failed land deal. The man fired into an unoccupied chapel, putting a bullet in the crucifix and knocking out the halo over Jesus Christ’s head.

It won’t be restored.

“Why would we?” Nieblas said. “It’s part of history. It shows the character of San Juan Capistrano.”


Maybe we’re getting closer in this Feb. 15, 1996, article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

But Capistrano still had a surprise in store. Last year a volunteer worker clearing lumber from a basement found a treasure of 17th and 18th century paintings and gold and silver crucifixes (one with a bullet hole through the centre of the cross), candlesticks and other liturgical ornaments and vestments.

Evidently the basements at Mission San Juan Capistrano held all sorts of undiscovered goodies, like some Impressionist paintings discovered in 1994.


To summarize: The crucifix with the supposed bullet hole was apparently found in a basement with other forgotten artifacts  about 1995.  Presumably the crucifix was unknown up to that time. The earliest source of the story appears to be  Jerry Nieblas, who was fired last year, according to an April 9, 2010, story by Peter Schelder in the Register. One can only wonder how such a vivid, detailed story could be remembered in local lore, though never published in the available online sources, while the artifact was forgotten.

And why am I making such a big deal about this?

Here’s why:

Aug. 14, 2011, Mystery Crucifix

Photo: Crucifix on display at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

Take a good look at the picture. Whatever pierced the crucifix entered from the back and came out the front, peeling back the metal to the left of Christ’s head.

And just to throw further questions on the item, the Register published this cutline in May:

A crucifix from Mission San Juan Capistrano circa 1900 is part of the new “Mission Treasures” exhibit, showing recovered and restored relics. The cross is said to have been hit by a bullet fired by an angry parishioner many years go. In 2008, during renovation of Serra Chapel, staff found a bullet lodged in a wall (also part of the exhibit) that is believed to be the one that struck the cross.

So we are left with a crucifix that may be from the 18th or 20th centuries, found in a basement, with a hole made through the back, a suspicious story about an unidentified gunman and a lot of questions.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Another Good Story Ruined, Religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Mystery of the Wounded Crucifix

  1. Eve says:

    “Duck, Jesus, duck!!”


  2. Nathan says:

    The exit ballistics clearly point to a second gunman.


  3. Pingback: THE CROSS, CRUCIFIX, BULLETS, SHOTS | cuma asal omong

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