By LOU PONSI     3/16/2023

When the swallows come back to Capistrano, that’s the day you promised to come back to me. When you whispered, “Farewell”, in Capistrano, twas the day the swallows flew out to sea … When the swallows come back to Capistrano, that’s the day I pray that you’ll come back to me.

“When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” is the song forever linked with St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows Celebration at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the Mission’s executive director since 2003, endearingly says that of the 21 missions situated along California’s Mission Trail, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the only one with its own theme song. The song is also, in large part, responsible for the Mission’s revival and popularity as a tourist destination, according to Lawrence Adams.

“People put it on their bucket lists,” the director said. “They want to go to the Mission and go see those birds. The Mission starts to rise in another life as a destination. What they are talking about is that something old, something beautiful, something romantic and that song captures all of that.”

Since singer/songwriter Leon René , wrote “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” in 1939, the song has been recorded in a variety of styles by such artists as the Ink Spots, Glen Miller and his Orchestra, Gene Autry, the Dominos, Pat Boone and even Elvis Presley.

The song was parodied in a 1949 Looney Tunes cartoon titled “Swallow the Leader,” and lampooned in an episode of “The Simpsons” where a talking head on a TV newscast proclaimed, “It’s the time of year when the swallows return to Springfield.”

The song is also performed during the annual Romance of the Mission Gala held in September, when the singer is asked to perform their own version of song, Lawrence Adams said.

“So, over the last 18 galas, the song has been performed in Dixie style, southern soul style and as a duet,” she said. “It has been done operatic, in just all kinds of cool ways.”

But when the song is performed during the annual Return of the Swallows and St. Joseph’s Day celebration every March 19, it is always performed to an accompanying mariachi band. Catholic Singer Renée Bondi is responsible for that.

Bondi, a lifelong resident of San Juan Capistrano and founder of Bondi Ministries, will perform the song during the annual celebration for the 20th consecutive year on March 19.

For decades, Leon René himself sang the song for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities René then passed the torch to his son Rafael who went on to perform the song for years.

Bondi recalled wonderful memories from her childhood attending Mission Basilica Catholic School, when the students donned Spanish costumes and danced for the audience every St. Joseph’s Day.

“The highlight was watching Leon René step onto the stage with mariachis and singing “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” the romantic ballad he composed in 1939,” said Bondi, who went on to study music education and became the parish music director and school music teacher and then the choir director at San Clemente High School.

Bondi’s story is itself, inspiring. At age 29, Bondi shattered her spine in a bizarre accident in her home, losing the use of her hands and legs. She could barely speak above a whisper and lost her singing voice.
Bondi persevered, her voice was restored, a miracle she credits to God. But there may never have been an annual St. Joseph’s Day celebration at the Mission or a song about the swallow return if not for the accomplishments of Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, who was put in charge of the Mission in 1910.

By then, the Mission was nearly in ruins and Fr. O’Sullivan undertook the much-needed restoration of the sacred space.

In his book, “Capistrano Nights,” Fr. O’Sullivan explained how the swallows came to find sanctuary at the Mission. While walking through town one day, Fr. O’Sullivan noticed a shopkeeper wielding a broomstick, batting down the mud swallow nests that were under the eaves of his shop.

When the pastor asked the shopkeeper why he was destroying the swallows’ nests, the man said the birds were a nuisance and dirtied up his property.

Concerned for their wellbeing, Fr. O’Sullivan said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”

So, the swallows’ annual migration to Argentina every October and return to the Mission every year on March 19, became an annual celebration.

Fast forward to March 19, 1939, when René was sitting at the table of his Los Angeles home waiting for his wife to finish cooking breakfast. With his wife seemingly in no big hurry to finish preparing his morning meal, René began listening to a radio broadcast of the annual Return of the Swallows celebration at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Then, he said it: “By the time the swallows come back to Capistrano, maybe I’ll get my breakfast,” René quipped to his wife. No sooner was the comment uttered, when René was struck by a bolt of inspiration.

“It dawned on me that this was a great title for a song,” René said years later for recording he made for Bill Ortega, owner of the Ortega Capistrano Trading Post. “So quickly I went to my studio and sat down to the old upright and in a short time I completed half of the song,” René said.

“I ran back into the house all excited and said to my wife, ‘Listen to this!’” René said. “I sang a few bars of the song, and she said, ‘Oh that’s beautiful!’ She had completely forgotten she was angry with me and cooked a wonderful breakfast — ham, eggs, French toast, the whole works!”

In the years between the final year Leon René’s performance of the song for St. Joseph’s Day and the first year Bondi sang the song in 2004, the song was performed by several artists with recorded piano music as accompaniment, losing much of its luster.

“I have to admit, the musical snob in me said, ‘This song deserves better and is best performed with mariachi, how it was originally written and recorded,’” Bondi said.

When Lawrence Adams became executive director of the Mission in 2003, she was looking for a local inspirational singer.

“We were looking for somebody to step into those shoes and bring that back,” Lawrence Adams said. “Renée Bondi was a natural choice.”

Now a singer/songwriter and inspirational speaker, Bondi recorded When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano with the band, Mariachi Espuelas de Mexico in 2005.

“It is still the arrangement used today, 84 years after Leon René first composed and recorded it,” Bondi said.

For Lawrence Adams, the song, like the Mission itself, represents a homecoming.

“Homecoming can mean a lot of things…and I think at the heart of it, the swallows signify a homecoming,” she said. “Or if you are a person of the Catholic faith tradition, wow, I’m coming home to the Mission. I’m coming home to the oldest most historically significant chapel in Orange County and California.”