San Juan Capistrano – A California town’s Hungarian connection

Most Californians do not know that the picturesque city of San Juan Capistrano, south of Los Angeles close to the Pacific Coast, has an intriguing Hungarian connection. The town is a popular tourist destination with palm trees, lots of sunshine and gorgeous architecture.

If you visit Budapest, and walk around in the Castle district you’ll bump into a small square, called Kapisztrán tér with the statue of János Kapisztrán. The sculpture depicts Kapisztrán carrying a flag as he leads his troops to battle. The memorial was placed there in 1922 to mark the 465th anniversary of Father Kapisztrán’s death and the 700th anniversary of the Franciscan Order in Hungary.

Statue of János Kapisztrán in Budapest.

János Kapisztrán is the same person as Juan Capistrano! The California town got its name from a Hungarian hero. How could this happen?

Kapisztrán or Capistrano was neither Hungarian nor Spanish, he was Italian. Giovanni, Juan, John and János are the same first name in the respective languages, Capestrano, Capistran and Kapisztrán are also various spellings of the same name.

Giovanni Chiori was born in 1386 in the tiny town of Capestrani in the Abruzzi region of Italy. He became a Franciscan friar under the name Giovanni da Capestrano. As a trusted envoy of the Vatican he was dispatched to various diplomatic missions.

In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, Europe was in danger; Sultan Mehmed II was ready to attack. When the Ottoman invasion became a real danger, Pope Callixtus III sent Giovanni da Capestrano to organize a crusade against the Turks. Giovanni was already 67-years old, and only Hungarians responded to his call.

In the summer of 1456 Giovanni teamed up with John Hunyadi (Hunyadi János) and beat the Turks at Nándorfehérvár, near today’s Belgrade. He was old and frail but still managed to lead his own contingent into battle; he was called “the Soldier Priest”.

The aging Franciscan survived the battle but not the bubonic plague that followed the fight. He died in October of 1456 in the city of Újlak (today Ilok, Croatia).

More than hundred years later Giovanni da Capestrano was canonized (there is still debate about the exact date) and Spanish missionaries were so impressed by his bravery that after founding the California Mission in 1776 they decided to name it, San Juan Capistrano.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.

Hungarian Franciscans later placed a plaque on the walls of the Mission to remind visitors that Saint John Capistran played an important role in Hungarian history.

Cardinal Mindszenty visited the California Mission and blessed the commemorative plaque

I visited the city many years ago and I can attest you that it is one of the most beautiful spots in California. Click here to see a brief video about San Juan Capistrano.

György Lázár

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