With the sprinkling of holy water and appeals to heaven, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Sunday consecrated the site of a new $50-million Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Los Angeles that he said will stand for 500 years.
The ground blessing, which drew a celebratory crowd estimated at more than 12,000, was hailed as a fitting acknowledgment of the city’s religious and civic stature on the eve of the new millennium.
“At long last, both the people of God and the city of Los Angeles will finally have a cathedral church worthy of our times and the importance of both the city and the archdiocese of Los Angeles,” the crimson-robed Mahony told those gathered at the 5.8-acre hillside site near the Music Center at Temple Street and Grand Avenue.
Mayor Richard Riordan hailed Sunday’s event as “another big step in the progress of our great city.” Riordan, a Catholic layman who has long championed the new cathedral, said he was looking forward to its completion “when we can seek solace and peace in the company of Our Lady Queen of Angels.”
For all the celebration, construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is not without opposition. About 60 members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker group held a vigil at Temple and Grand, across from the ceremony, to again protest the amount of money being spent on the project instead of on helping the poor.
Mahony has vowed to build the cathedral in three years and dedicate it on Sept. 4, 2000, in time for Christianity’s third millennium. As designed by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo, the soaring concrete edifice will have clerestory windows of translucent alabaster, modern buttresses, a 180-foot-high bell tower that will be visible for miles away and a large public courtyard for public events.
“This revered ground is blessed and dedicated to God for the ages to come,” Mahony declared Sunday before gleefully tossing a shovel of dirt into the air. “The precious cornerstone of Jesus Christ is being set in place as a timeless blessing for this city and our archdiocese.”
Since no date has been set for construction to begin, the archdiocese called Sunday’s ceremony a ground blessing instead of a groundbreaking at what had been a county-owned parking lot. The Community Redevelopment Agency is expected to vote Oct. 1 on the final environmental impact report required before construction can begin. Other city permits also await approval.
The new edifice will replace the shuttered Cathedral of St. Vibiana, a 121-year-old Spanish Baroque-style structure at 2nd and Main streets, which historic preservationists are battling to save from the wrecker’s ball as part of a possible cultural, hotel or office complex.
Maria Kolodziej of Culver City was delighted on Sunday to be standing at the future site of the new cathedral with her husband, Ron, and their three children, ranging from 7 months to 8 years. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day and I’m trying to tell my kids this is where the front door of the new cathedral will be,” she said. “It’s history.”
Nick Galesic, a San Pedro resident who also attended the ceremony, said he thought Moneo’s plans were beautiful. “Los Angeles deserves a big cathedral, a nice and new cathedral for the 21st century. It’s a new beginning,” he said.
But members of the Catholic Worker group propped a large sign--made of a patchwork of butcher paper--against a chain-link fence. It read: “Spend God’s money on God’s poor.”
“The cardinal is becoming a booster for redevelopment,” said group leader Jeff Dietrich. “We would like him to be a booster for the poor and homeless.”
The cardinal originally wanted to build the new church on the site of St. Vibiana’s, but the Los Angeles Conservancy went to court and succeeded in blocking the old cathedral’s demolition. The old cathedral was closed in 1996 after city officials deemed it seismically unsafe. Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the cathedral on its annual “endangered” list, along with such other locations as decaying portions of Ellis Island in New York.
As court rulings brought delays, Mahony chose the new site, near the Music Center and the county Hall of Administration, for the project.
Most recently, Native Americans have asked city authorities to make sure that the new cathedral site is not on ancient ancestral burial grounds.
But Mahony, who has in the past minced no words about opposition or failed to exert political influence, was philosophical Sunday about those battles.
“Neither I nor anyone on the cathedral planning team foresaw our settling upon this unique, elevated, grand site to situate our new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels,” he said. “No, we were led to this site by a wondrous yet mysterious set of circumstances, and in my opinion [they were] all part of God’s providence for us.”
Sunday’s ground blessing was as much a civic event as a religious occasion.
Congratulatory letters poured in from Pope John Paul II’s envoy to Washington, Apostolic Pro-Nuncio Agostino Cacciavillan; the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Rev. Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland; and leading Protestants. But there was no question that Sunday’s ceremony was essentially a day for the estimated 4.5 million Roman Catholics in the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese, which includes Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Mahony in red cope and miter, auxiliary bishops in flowing purple robes, priests in white albs and everyday Catholics dressed in the costumes of their native lands--to reflect the cultural diversity of the archdiocese--walked the several blocks from St. Vibiana’s to the construction site.
As part of the celebration, young people from each of the archdiocese’s 264 parishes carried brightly colored banners onto the site. An 800-voice choir of children and adults from parishes throughout the region sang. Uniformed members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order, lent an air of pomp. A Mexican mariachi band, Polish folk dance ensemble and Tongan tauolunga dancers performed, illustrating Mahony’s point that the church ministers to a culturally diverse region.
In a dramatic moment, Franciscan monks from Assisi, Italy, presented a stone taken from the foundation of St. Francis of Assisi’s favorite church, the 13th-century St. Mary of the Angels of the Porciuncula. The stone will be incorporated in the new Los Angeles cathedral.
As the liturgy ended, 300 white doves--a Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit--were released. They soared into the blue skies, circled in separate groups above the heads of the faithful and then formed a single formation that flew out of sight.
Across the street, a handful of conservative Catholics and social activists from the Catholic Worker group quietly protested with placards.
Mahony sought to address complaints of misplaced priorities lodged by the Catholic Workers on behalf of the homeless.
“The church of Jesus Christ does not require actual material stones for its identity nor its authentic witness in the world,” Mahony said. But he added that scriptural accounts such as those in Acts 2:42 showed that from the time of the early church, Christians set aside sacred spaces as places of teaching, worship and communal life.
“Down through the centuries the unswerving confession of [the Apostle] Peter and the vibrant life of the church were marked both by rejection and persecution on the one hand, and by the building of enduring churches and cathedrals on the other,” he said.
“Both the interior and exterior witness to Jesus Christ have gloriously marked our history as a church,” he said.
The time has come, Mahony said, for a new cathedral befitting the nation’s most populous Catholic archdiocese and one of the nation’s most “eminent” cities.
“Situated as a unique gateway to both Latin America and to the Pacific Rim,” Mahony said, “Los Angeles stands as a beacon of hope and of unity in a world that continues to blend beliefs and cultures in a new fusion of God’s people.”