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The Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, in what is now Little Tokyo, was the cathedral church of the Los Angeles Archdiocese for over 100 years. (A “cathedral” is the headquarters of a diocese or archdiocese. It’s the church that contains the cathedra, or “throne,” an actual chair that symbolizes the bishop’s authority.)
When it was consecrated in 1876, Saint Vibiana’s could hold more than a tenth of the population of Los Angeles. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become too small for the region’s growing population. But economic and political concerns repeatedly scuttled plans to build a new cathedral.
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake severely damaged Saint Vibiana’s, the Archdiocese seized the opportunity to replace it. Insisting that rebuilding it to modern seismic standards was neither economically nor technically feasible, they began a “stealth” project to demolish it in 1996, with neither public notice nor the required permits. Preservationist groups immediately began a protracted court battle to save the historic landmark.
City officials ultimately resolved the dispute with an offer the Archdiocese
could not refuse: Swap the Saint Vibiana site for 2.3 hectares of City-owned land
next to the 101 Freeway, around the corner from City Hall. In 1999 the City sold the
Saint Vibiana site to private developers, who miraculously found an economically
viable way to rebuild and restore the cathedral. The site is now a called “Vibiana,”
a venue for weddings, conferences, and other private events. The new Cathedral of
Our Lady of the Angels opened in September 2002.
For the new cathedral, Archbishop Roger Mahony commissioned the Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo— winner of the Pritzker Prize, the architect’s equivalent of the Academy Award or Pulitzer Prize— to create a postmodern complex that looks nothing like a traditional cathedral. The concrete exterior is built around geometric acute and obtuse angles, minimizing right angles and avoiding symmetry. (Could this have been the Archbishop’s revenge on the preservationists, whose devotion to the historic old cathedral caused him so much trouble?)
Moneo’s 21st century cathedral nonetheless incorporates appropriate tributes to California history and tradition. The brown color of the exterior recalls the adobe walls of Spanish Colonial missions, as do the bells set in the wall along Temple Street. The Cathedral also features Moneo’s modern interpretation of a traditional campanile (bell tower). 48 meters high, it will eventually hold 18 bells. Two of the four bells currently in the tower came from Saint Vibiana’s cathedral; a third is from Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Like many modern buildings, the Cathedral has a metaphorical “back story” that informs its design. Moneo conceived it as a place of pilgrimage, leading from the secular world to sacred Redemption. And he likened its location overlooking the 101 Freeway to the European tradition of building cathedrals near rivers. For Moneo, the freeway symbolizes the “river” of transportation that connects the people of Los Angeles to each other. (But did he ever actually drive on the 101 Freeway?)
To heighten the pilgrimage concept, Moneo makes worshippers and visitors travel a circuitous route. The only pedestrian entrance to the grounds is through a gate on Temple Street, which leads to a street-level plaza. (Pilgrims arriving by car can park in the underground garage and ride an elevator to this plaza.)
They then climb stairs that ascend to the upper plaza, from which they can proceed to the Cathedral’s actual entrance. To further emphasize Moneo’s avoidance of traditional symmetry, that entrance is on the south side of the building rather than in the usual center. Atop the entrance is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary by Robert Graham. Although Graham is known for his sculptures of female nude figures, the Virgin wears an appropriately modest full-length robe.
From the entrance, an ambulatory (passageway) leads to the back of the 101-meter-long nave. (Archbishop Mahony personally tweaked Moneo’s plans to make the nave one foot longer than that of the cavernous Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.) Its polished concrete walls, limestone tile floor, and cedar wood ceiling enclose 5,388 square meters. Its pews can accommodate 3,000 worshippers. Entering the sanctuary completes Moneo’s symbolic pilgrimage, with the light of Salvation marking the end of the journey.
That light comes from windows made of alabaster specially imported from Spain. Alabaster is calcium carbonate, the protean stuff of marble, travertine, eggshells, pearls, chalk, tufa, and Tums. When thinly sliced, it’s translucent. The Cathedral’s 3,110 square meters of alabaster windows— the world’s largest collection of them— suffuse the sanctuary with soft, warm light.
Beneath the sanctuary is a mausoleum with over 6,000 spaces for interment. Unlike other cathedrals, where only favored dignitaries can be buried, this mausoleum accommodates the remains of any Catholic who can pay for a crypt or niche (the cost of which varies according to location). For those who can’t afford to bury their loved ones in the mausoleum, there’s the lower-cost option of inscribing a memorial in special areas of the Spanish limestone walls.
The mausoleum also offers a connection to the past. It’s decorated with stained glass from the old Saint Vibiana Cathedral. And across from the entrance is a chapel dedicated to Saint Vibiana herself, the centerpiece of which is a marble casket containing her skeleton.
That skeleton was discovered in December 1853, in a Roman catacomb under a vineyard owned by Pope Pius IX. The bones showed signs of a violent death. Next to those remains was a vase that appeared to contain dried blood, and a plaque dedicated “to the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana” with symbols associated with martyrdom.
From that evidence, papal investigators concluded that Vibiana was a previously unknown young virgin martyred in the third century. As martyred virgins then occupied a special place in Catholic (and Romantic) hearts, and candidates for sainthood were not yet subject to painstaking scrutiny, Vibiana’s canonization took only a few weeks. In March 1854, Pope Pius gave custody of the relics to the new bishop of Monterey, the diocese that included the entire new state of California.
As a non-believer, I can not properly appreciate the spiritual experience the Cathedral might offer a faithful Catholic. But you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Cathedral as a striking work of modern art, or the mighty sound of the 6,019-pipe Dobson organ that the Cathedral’s organist was playing during my visit.
The Cathedral’s grandiose scale, opulence, and cost led some critics to dub it the “Rog Mahal” or the “Taj Mahony.” The Cathedral itself— the third largest in the world— cost $190 million. But that did not include the furnishings: the $5 million altar, the $2 million pastor’s lectern, a $2.5 million fountain, plus $50,000 for each pew and $150,000 for each of the distinctive chandeliers that also house loudspeakers for the Cathedral’s sound system.
Although private donations covered all those costs, there were the inevitable questions about whether the Archdiocese could have better spent that money helping its many poor and needy people. Those concerns were the reason Archbishop Mahony’s predecessors were consistently reluctant to build a replacement for the old Saint Vibiana’s, despite official endorsement from the Vatican. But the costly Cathedral now seems a better bargain than the Archbishop’s other notorious expenditure, the record $660 million settlement in 2007 to over 500 victims in the Los Angeles chapter of the worldwide pedophile priest scandal.