Earthquakes play a major role in the history of California’s cathedrals. In the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, among the thousands of buildings destroyed were Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (1854), St. Francis Pro-cathedral (1849) and the pro-cathedral predecessor of Grace Cathedral. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 doomed Oakland’s Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales (1893) and San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral (1921) while the 1994 Northridge earthquake spelled the end for the Cathedral of St. Vibiana (1876) in Los Angeles and caused the Armenian diocese to abandon St. John Cathedral (1942) in Hollywood.
St. Francis Pro-cathedral and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in ruins after the 1906 earthquake. Both were later rebuilt.
A statue of St. Emydius held a prominent place in the Cathedral of St. Vibiana. He is traditionally invoked against earthquakes. So what happened? Was Emydius asleep at the switch?
Emydius (also spelled Emidius or Emydigius) was a fourth-century German pagan who accepted Christianity. With a new convert’s zeal, he smashed a pagan idol in a temple in Rome. To save him from the authorities, Pope Marcellinus (or Marcellus I; the accounts are unclear) sent him into hiding as bishop for the region of Ascoli Piceno, where he was an effective missionary, baptizing many people. He was beheaded during the persecution under Diocletian. In 1703, the people of Ascoli Piceno invoked the protection of their first bishop during a violent earthquake, and gave him the credit when their city was left intact. Emydius became a popular saint in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for obvious reasons.
From the life of Emydius we learn something important about prayers of petition. First of all, the communion of saints is not a new pantheon of little gods with magical power over various natural events, or protectors we pray to so our lives may be more comfortable or prosperous. We ask the intercession of the saints in the same way we ask our living friends to pray for us; they pray to God, who alone has the power to intervene in human lives. More importantly, Emydius was a martyr. He believed there were more important things than just surviving or living a life free from hardship.
When faced with the witness of a martyr, we recall especially the petitionary attitude of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by me. But if not, your will be done.” This is the proper Christian approach when we ask anything of God: resignation to the fact that we do not always know what is best. We must have a loving trust in God to accept what comes our way, knowing that God will always pull good from evil, triumph from tragedy, power from pain.
St. Mary’s Cathedral (1891; the second of three San Francisco Catholic cathedrals of that name) was spared devastation in the 1906 earthquake and became a relief center feeding 2,000 people a day in the aftermath of the disaster. It was finally destroyed by fire in 1962.
I was living in one of the Park La Brea towers (a large apartment complex in the Miracle Mile District) in 1994 when the Northridge quake hit. My apartment was a mess; furniture and bookshelves toppled, dishes and kitchen utensils covering the floor, hundreds of books strewn about, and plaster rubble all over everything. (My two cats were so traumatized they would not emerge from under the bed for two days.) I went downstairs, and there my neighbors began to gather — people I had never met who lived in my building, some of them I had never even seen.
Of course I knew what would happen, because we Angelenos are no strangers to catastrophe. Just like in the riots two years before, we sat down and talked, exchanged stories, then the food began to show up. Everybody brought whatever they had to eat to the park in front of our building and the food became common property. We brought cars around, turned on the car radios to find out what was happening in the rest of the city. We learned about each other, because we had to. There was no electricity, no water, no television, no Internet. We exchanged advice and experience from previous earthquakes and when it got dark we all brought down to the park whatever candles we had to sit up late into the night talking.
Now there were many people worse off than we were; some even died. The point of the story is that our faith in God doesn’t offer us a way out, but a way through. If we are attentive, we can even draw good from bad things that happen, with the grace of God and the prayers of St. Emydius.