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Joining me at the Mission San Juan Capistrano's "Romance of the Mission" gala was Portola Riders' President Tony Gregory II, left, and Gilbert Aguirre, one of the either original Portola Riders

Joining me at the Mission San Juan Capistrano’s “Romance of the Mission” gala was Portola Riders’ President Tony Gregory II, left, and Gilbert Aguirre, one of the original eight Portola Riders

I had heard of the Portola Riders, but I didn’t really know their history until I recently attended the annual Mission San Juan Capistrano’s “Romance of the Mission” gala, where the group was honored. Held at what is known as “The Jewel of the Missions,” I spoke with Tony Gregory II, president of El Viaje de Portola, who said the  Portolas were 300 active riders, who have been riding the foothills of old California to support the Mission since 1964. “The Mission is the pillar of what our town is all about and as Portola riders, we enjoy supporting many of its preservation projects,” he said. The 55 or 60 riders attending were easily identified by their classy hats with their black-tie attire, and I loved the Forster Family Saddle displayed at the gala in tribute to what the Portolas call “The Cowboy Way.”

The social hour for the sold-out 480-guest affair in the Mission’s lush front gardens precluded the concert in the ruins of the Great Stone Church. Prior to featured Broadway artist David Burnham’s performance, Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams welcomed everyone, commemorating the 11 years since the first concert in the Great Stone Church. “Back then,” she said, “hosting an event like this evening was a dream and a risk, and today it is a tradition.” She recognized two stalwart Mission advocates, Reverend Monsignor J. Michael McKiernan, Pastor, Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, and Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin, Pastor & Rector Emeritus

Mission Preservation Foundation Board President George O’Connell asked the board members to stand and be recognized and asked Gregory to come to the stage for the El Viaje de Portola honor. Joking, he said, “It has been an honor to have driven the trails with the Portola riders.” The talented Burnham then took the stage with his music director Mark Vogel and a two-piece band to perform a group of Broadway classics, including a not-so-Broadway rendition of the beloved, When the Swallows Come Back from Capistrano.” Special guest Christina Saffran joined Burnham in the classic duet, “Our Prayer,” made famous by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion. The duo sang it beautifully.

Guests were invited to the candlelight dinner in the Central Courtyard, with the 237-year bell ringing tradition by official Mission bell ringer Nathan Banda (see photo) announcing the call to dine. The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, once again partnered with the Mission to orchestrate a marvelous four-course dinner (especially loved the Marcona Almond Praline and Chocolate Torte! – see photo), accompanied by superb wine pairings from Fetzer Vineyards. It was wonderful in every way, and the tables richly displayed the most beautiful colored florals accented with twinkling pillars and votives. There was even a nod to the Portolas on every table with a vivid red dahlia in a smoky beer bottle or apothecary jar. Kudos to Floral Occasions of San Juan Capistrano, who put it together. And, I mustn’t forget to recognize the amazing Marco Tulio Trio, who entertained with their shimmering guitar music throughout dinner.

During a dinner break, Adams asked the gala committee to approach the courtyard stage, where she lauded their efforts, especially the leadership of the Mission’s Barb Beier, Director of Development. Other committee members included Diana Arrigoni, Jodie Cerru, Georgianna Hales, Wendy Mulvihill, Michelle Sukut, Mozelle Sukut, Tracie Sullivan, Madeline Swinden, and Marianne Taylor. The winners of the three opportunity prizes were announced, which included an 18k white gold diamond bracelet, courtesy of the Roberto Coin Boutique in Fashion Island.

The courtyard setting was magical, as it always is. That’s why the Mission gala is one of my favorite charity events to attend. Enjoying such a lovely evening in such an historic setting is really breathtaking, knowing that the Mission was founded in 1776 and so much of significance has transpired on those sacred grounds. The foundation works diligently to conserve and preserve this wonderful place. To that end, an estimated $260,000 (a record!) was netted to continue to preserve the historic venue, including Phase Two of the Sala Preservation Project. Guests departed with two darling embossed leather coasters in a nod to the Portolas!

Selected photos courtesy of Lisa Renee Photography