The church near Olvera Street does not have five-ton cast bronze doors or a sticker price of close to $200 million, but its cultural significance is grand nonetheless.
Less than a minute away from the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that is set to open Sept. 2, is a piece of the city’s cultural past, La Placita church, which is still inspiring awe and pride in its tens of thousands of visitors.
“This is my church,” said Nellie Banta, who has attended Mass regularly at La Placita for more than 40 years. “This is the first church I ever came to in California, and it’s going to be my last church.”
For many like Banta, Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles, as La Placita is formally known, is more than just a house of worship. Many see La Placita as a “church for Latinos.” Others see it as the church of Los Angeles.
“I wanted to learn about the history of Los Angeles,” said Colleen Conroy, a tourist from Washington, D.C., on a recent Sunday at La Placita. “I thought it was incredible. The faith of the people at this church was inspiring.
“Not many people would stand for more than an hour in the street for church. Man, they do it here every week for every Mass.”
The church, the first ever built in Los Angeles, was erected in 1781 at what is now the corner of Cesar Chavez Boulevard and North Broadway.
La Placita began as a 1,400-square-foot chapel, which is now used primarily for baptisms and smaller services. When the adobe church first opened, donations of cattle and barrels of brandy were its primary funding.
Years later, a church able to accommodate 500 parishioners was built next to the chapel. The church has since been expanded to seat 1,000, and the rectory was enlarged to include a social services office, meeting rooms and a large assembly hall.
While the church has undergone changes over the years, much of the original furniture and statuary is still around. Two bells that were lent to the church by the San Gabriel Mission still remain in the church’s possession, according to church officials.
The congregation at La Placita is almost all Latino, with many immigrants from Mexico and Central America, said Jose Cohen, a layman who has served in various capacities at the church since 1975. The church, in the heart of Los Angeles’ Mexican birthplace, is one of the busiest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
With six priests, all of whom speak Spanish, La Placita has 11 Masses every Sunday, serving about 12,000 worshipers within its aging walls. Others gather outside to listen to Sunday services through loudspeakers. About 300 children are baptized every week.
“This is a great church for Latinos,” said Eddie Jarillo, who admits he is not a church regular. “What’s great about the church is that almost all the Masses are in Spanish. But the only thing is, you just have to come early to grab a seat.”
The 30-year-old South Los Angeles man, who stood through Mass one Sunday when he couldn’t get a seat, said the first time he attended Mass at La Placita was to have his 4-year-old son, Edmund, and 6-year-old daughter, Ashley, baptized at a fountain in the courtyard honoring the Santo Nino de Atocha.
Dozens of worshippers knelt in front of the fountain, praying to the Santo Nino, a representation of the Christ child. Some prayed for a cure to a child’s illness, others for success in school. Nearby, vendors sold everything from religious trinkets to tacos and churros.
La Placita always has been known as a haven for refugees and illegal immigrants. In the 1980s, it drew fire from Immigration and Naturalization Service officials when Father Luis Olivares declared the church a sanctuary for Central American immigrants fleeing war-torn countries.
The area around the church has long been a target of the INS, dating back to the 1930s when raids led to the deportation of thousands of Mexican Americans, many of whom had been born in the United States.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, about 100 aging braceros--Mexican farm laborers--come to the church, not just for a free meal, but to find a friendly ear. Many support themselves by collecting aluminum and plastic cans and bottles and are in poor health.
“There are many people who need help in the city,” said Cohen, who now serves as the church’s social action coordinator. “This church has always prided itself in trying to help everybody who walks through the doors.”
A mural of the Madonna and child, enthroned with angels, and framed pictures of saints are some of the artistic features in the church, which exudes a rustic, charm.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I can see that this church is old and has been falling apart for many years,” said Salvador Hernandez, a 66-year-old Glendale resident. “It’s still a beautiful place to be on Sundays. It’s the most beautiful church I’ve been to.”
Every Sunday, Banta and her 67-year-old sister, Magdalena Perez, take a one-hour bus ride from Highland Park to the church, where they meet their 73-year-old brother, Eddie Perez, for 10:30 a.m. Mass.
It has been a family tradition since Nellie was married in the church on May 27, 1960, after coming to California from Leon in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.
Since then, most of Banta’s family has died. Of 14 brothers and sisters, only the three remain. Going to church always has been an all-day event for the siblings, who sat down and enjoyed a plate of tacos al carbon and a cup of horchata, thick rice milk, before boarding their bus back home about 6 p.m.
It gets harder to make the trip to the church as they get older, but every week the siblings manage.
“We do it because this is all we’ve ever done on Sundays,” Banta said. “I got married at this church. My two children were baptized here and, now, it has kept me together with my family.”