Cathedrals of California, A Virtual Pilgrimage

Saint Emydius, Pray for Us!

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

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.

Ruins of St. Francis Pro-cathedral and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

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.

Breadline at St. Mary’s Cathedral after the 1906 earthquake

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.

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels III

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Below you can find two more images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The first one is an overview of the altar (and the central nave) seen from the last row of pews. The majestic organ is visible to the right, while the chair (Cathedra) of the bishop is placed on the opposite side. In the center of the altar - at the end of the walkway – the visually stunning crucifix reigns the space.

The second photo immortalizes a detail of a stained glass placed in the mausoleum below the church. This glass is one of many others which originally belonged to the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and that are now showcased along the passage ways of the same mausoleum. This particular detail narrates the Agony of Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the angel appeared with the chalice. Impressive is the intelligent use of artificial light placed behind the glasses. All the vivid colors generate a strong contrast with the pale walls of the ”underground labirinth”.  One incredible aspect of such travel inside the mausoleum is to be able to contemplate these art pieces absent sounds, while being in the center of chaotic Los Angeles. An experience reminding us of the catacombs in ancient Rome.

Interior of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

Window of Agony in the Garden

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Saint Vibiana, the Patron of Nobodies

Monday, September 17th, 2007

We know next to nothing about Saint Vibiana. Yet for nearly 120 years her name was attached to the Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, and today her tomb is in the crypt of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

When I was young, I remember my grandmother taking me to the cathedral downtown. I distinctly recall the effigy of Saint Vibiana, at that time enshrined above the cathedral altar. It was a wax cast of a young girl that covered those bones unearthed a century before in Rome, encased in glass trimmed with gilt filigree. She appeared to be asleep, and she was dressed in fine silk garments.

High Altar of St. Vibiana Cathedral

Casket of St. Vibiana above the cathedral altar in a 1940 photo

Who was she? She is an enigma. She is nobody and everybody. Her feast is celebrated only by us here in Los Angeles. Because we don’t know the details of her life, in one way it is difficult to ascribe to her particular virtues we can imitate. Yet in another way. this makes it easier for us to identify with her.

All we know about her is that she was a martyr. And that is enough. She stands for all of us, the insignificant ones who will never be written about in history books. We follow Jesus as best we can, in ways unknown to others. Yet we too can be like Vibiana, faithful disciples of the Lord. Our lives may not be widely known, but they are known to God, who has called us each by name from before the beginning of time.

When we stand before the Tomb of Saint Vibiana, let us imagine our parents, our grandparents and great-grandparents who sacrificed so much to pass on to us the Faith. In many ways, they are like Vibiana, unknown to the world but beloved by God. To a world obsessed with celebrity, they are nobodies; but in the eyes of God, they are precious beyond all imagining.

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels II

Monday, September 17th, 2007

When first approaching the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in the heart of the recently renewed district of Downtown Los Angeles, it is stunning to see the imposing force of the structure.

The massive volume of it reminds us of the power of the Church in the community. Spanish architect, Professor José Rafael Moneo has designed a dynamic, contemporary Cathedral of which geometry contributes to the structure’s feeling of mystery and majesty. Although the inside displays this contemporary style, I noticed a relationship with some ancient structures which display an extensive knowledge of geometry. The absence of stained glasses (and consequently the presence of natural light) helps the human eye observe the rigid lines that create a puzzle of spaces, chapels, stairs and angles. Nothing seems to be curving, bending or rotating. 

Included below is a photograph of a baptism that took place in the Cathedral. Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik is clearly visible while lifting the child along with some family members. It was very impressive to be able to see a full immersion baptism, which is still unusual in the Catholic Church. The baptismal font is an octagon with a cross shape inside.

Immersion baptism at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

Msgr. Kostelnik and child’s family members performing the baptism

Below is a photograph of Saint Vibiana’s tomb located in the homonymous chapel underneath the cathedral. The saint is known to be a Roman female martyr who according to legend was the daughter of a former prefect, Flavianus. She died after being tortured.

Tob of St. Vibiana

Tomb of Saint Vibiana

As you can see, the space where the sarcophagus is placed is bathed in light from above, which produces a very spiritual environment where the “underground” meets the “heavens”.


Above is the view of the window and lamps within the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  The lamps are from the Cathedral of St. Vibiana.


Above is a dramatically angled photograph taken from the foot of the altar cross. 

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels I: History

Friday, September 14th, 2007

On July 8, Francesco and I began our journey (with the able assistance of Jim Stewart) at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. We were fortunate that baptisms were taking place that day, and Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik, the cathedral pastor, graciously invited us to photograph that event as well. All the cathedral baptisms are done by full immersion, and Francesco got some amazing shots of that experience. We are also indebted to the cathedral deacon, Manny Martinez, fsp, who helped arrange our visit.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated by Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2002. It replaced the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana (designed by Ezra Kysor), which was bult by Bishop Thaddeus Amat and dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany of San Francisco in 1876. The new cathedral was the culmination of nearly 100 years of attempts to construct a suitable cathedral for Los Angeles.

St. Vibiana Cathedral in an 1880 photograph

St. Vibiana Cathedral in an 1880 photograph

In 1876, the population of Los Angeles was only 9,000, and the cathedral could accommodate 1,000 people. By 1904, it was already apparent that a new cathedral was needed to meet the needs of the increasing population of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles. In that year, Bishop Thomas Conaty petitioned the Holy See for permission to construct a new cathedral and demolish St. Vibiana. Permission was given, and a site was purchased on Ninth Street for the new cathedral, to be named in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Boston architectural firm of Maginnis, Walsh and Sullivan drew up plans for a Spanish Colonial cathedral. The economic depression of 1907, however, put a stop to the project. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was eventually built on this site. Bishop Conaty continued to seek ways to build a new cathedral, with one plan to locate it at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont.

Sketch of Bishop Conaty’s Cathedral

Architect’s sketch of Bishop Conaty’s proposed cathedral for Ninth Street

In 1945, Archbishop John J. Cantwell announced that architects were at work designing a new cathedral for Wilshire Boulevard, to be named Our Lady of the Angels. The architect was to be Philip Hubert Frohman, principal architect of the Washington National Cathedral. This plan was eventually abandoned, and the site was sold to Farmers Insurance, whose national headquarters remains there at Wilshire and Rimpau in the Park Mile District.

Sketch of Archbishop Cantwell’s Cathedral

Architect’s sketch of Archbishop Cantwell’s proposed cathedral for Wilshire Boulevard

When James Francis McIntyre became Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1948, he decided that building parishes and schools for the booming archdiocese was a more pressing need than the new cathedral. He wrote to all who had contributed to Cantwell’s cathedral fund, requesting permission to redirect their gifts to the vast building program that was necessary. McIntyre then presided over a phenomenal period of growth and building.

St. Vibiana Cathedral continued to serve Los Angeles during this time, undergoing several major renovations until the 1994 Northridge earthquake ended its nearly 120 years of service by rendering it unusable. Rather than undertaking expensive repairs and additional renovations to a cathedral that had already been inadequate to the needs of Los Angeles for several decades, Cardinal Roger Mahony decided to construct a new cathedral, and retained the prominent Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo to design it. Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize shortly after being commissioned to design the cathedral. The former cathedral was desanctified and later adapted for use as a performing arts and events venue.

With the construction of the new cathedral, Angelenos have a Mother Church consistent with the name of the city, which was founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (The City of Our Lady of the Angels), a name later shortened to Los Angeles.

Multiple tips of the biretta to the book Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Msgr. Francis Weber, archdiocesan archivist.

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