Down in San Juan Capistrano, there are many who will know where you’re headed when you say you’re going to “The Hill.”
But for those who don’t, it’s a secluded plot off Ortega Highway and the 5 Freeway, past the Chevron station and to the right, up the steep incline and through the gates.
The Hill refers to the Old Mission Historic Cemetery, one of Orange County’s oldest burial grounds dating to the 1830s. The roughly 1.5-acre private cemetery is located atop a slope whose peak once had wide views of the area before its modern-day development.
Now maintained by the Diocese of Orange, the cemetery has sacred significance to longtime families of the area, many of whom have Native American ancestry and ties to Mission San Juan Capistrano, located about a mile west down the road.
Jerry Nieblas is the cemetery’s caretaker and president of the Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee. The 69-year-old lifelong San Juan Capistrano resident can trace his ancestry in the area through the 1700s, to his six-time great-grandparents. A descendant even personally witnessed the founding of the Mission in 1776.
On Nov. 6, Nieblas celebrated the 11th annual Mass of Remembrance alongside church leaders who included Bishop Kevin Vann, Fr. James Nieblas (first Juaneño to be ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood), Fr. Eamon O’Gorman, Fr. Martin Yslas and the Rev. Msgr. J. Michael McKiernan (pastor and rector of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano).
Bishop Vann, the Mass’ main celebrant, gave a formal blessing of the cemetery’s Corpus Christi, which is on its Landmark Cross. The cross, which dates to the 1930s, came with the help of donors and has been restored over the years.
For many, the Nov. 6 Mass represented a great resurgence and tremendous honor to have the Diocese of Orange’s Bishop present.
In an interview at the Old Mission Historic Cemetery before the Mass, Nieblas complimented Bishop Vann and the Diocese’s cemeteries team for their care and ongoing stewardship.
“We consider this very sacred ground, and it’s treated as such,” Nieblas said. “They meet our needs up here.” Under the Diocese’s control, burials, whether in caskets or cremated remains, are highly affordable for eligible families. Burial-related fees are minimal and there is no charge for the land, said Mike Wesner, director of cemeteries.
“The Diocese is proud to do its part in continuing the centuries of tradition at Old Mission Historic Cemetery,” Wesner said. “We honor and respect those buried there, among their families, on such sacred grounds.”
The cemetery has dirt grounds, with no manicured grass.
“It’s very rustic, and that’s the way our people want it,” Nieblas said. “It represents us.”
It’s home to various trees, including pine, pepper, jacaranda and cherry.
The “Grandmother Tree” is in the heart of the cemetery. Nieblas said it represents strength and endurance through its extensive root system.
“The many branches, the fact that it has flourished all these years, represents our people,” he added.
Decades ago, Nieblas said the graves were hand-dug. Men did the heavy labor; women came to feed them and they’d gather over Rosary and prayer.
HISTORY AND RENEWAL
The Diocese of Orange took over the grounds in 2010, which is also when Nieblas, who has been visiting the site since he was a child, became its caretaker. In the years prior, the cemetery was a source of dispute and had fallen into disrepair.
With regular Diocese maintenance and some Eagle Scout project work, the rustic cemetery maintains its quiet dignity as the noisy world bustles around it – as it borders commercial property, an office park, Oceans Church and Ortega Highway.
No one knows exactly how many people are buried there, though it is in the hundreds. About 125 of them are unmarked graves for children.
“It was the times of their deaths — epidemic years, large families,” Nieblas noted. “Mom and dad went on with their lives and they forgot about the graves.”
Wesner called it a “pioneer cemetery” because of its scarce records and ties to early Orange County settler families and Native American people. According to Nieblas, the site was first used as a cemetery in the 1830s but wasn’t formally considered that until the late 1860s. A Mission archivist told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 that the land was deeded by the Sheehan family in 1879 to the Catholic Church for $100.
Nieblas said the Sheehans are buried there. The family ranched and farmed the area, but they couldn’t use the Old Mission Historic Cemetery site because of runoff issues.
The site then got used as burial grounds as space ran out at the Mission and for people’s personal preferences.
“It was in the valley between the two rivers,” Nieblas said. “That was very important to Native American communities. From this vantage point, you could see the ocean. That’s very important in our history, our culture, our traditions. And at one point, you could stand out and see the Mission.”
Nieblas has six generations of his family buried there. He too will be buried there someday.
The Old Mission Historic Cemetery maintains a “rigid protocol” for who gets burial rights. According to Nieblas, they must be from historic families, with connections to the land and be of the Catholic tradition.
“We grow up hearing, ‘Be careful what you say about these people, because you’re all related,’” he said with a laugh.