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A cathedral grows up in the city

Los Angeles

Fr. Richard Vosko placed his hands on the burgundy marble altar in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and looked out 300 feet to the rear of Los Angeles’ new ecclesia mater (mother church).

Then the Albany diocesan priest raised his hands. Slowly he brushed them together -- to rid them of the dust from the thick protective plastic cover blue taped to the 10- by 8-foot marble rectangle that was strewn with schematic drawings, manila folders and satchels.

Five months from now, on Labor Day, in the Sept. 2 opening moments of the dedicatory Mass at the $200 million-and-rising edifice, Cardinal Roger Mahony will place his hands on this same altar, polished and dust free, and gaze down the football-field long church at 3,000 dignitaries from California, Washington, Rome and beyond. (Six hundred of them will be on chairs brought in for the occasion.)

This day -- stretching away from the altar in all directions -- the church is a jumble of sawn wood, half-tiled floor, curling cables, crates of fixtures, weird lamps dangling 45 feet from above, and workmen clattering their way through the final stages of constructing the earthquake-proof replacement for the earthquake-cracked 19th-century, 500-seat St. Vibiana’s four blocks away.

If the cardinal is the man with a new cathedral, Vosko is the U.S. Catholic church’s pre-eminent cathedral man. He is not an architect -- that challenge in Los Angeles went to Spain’s José Rafael Moneo. Vosko, in a phrase, is a designer of sacred space.

He has 10 U.S. cathedral renovations notched on his Uniball Vision Ultrafine pen, plus Los Angeles.

Vosko’s job is to place within Moneo’s space -- and there’s plenty of it, indoors and out -- $30 million worth of furnishings and art (not all that money has yet been raised). “There’s very little in the building that’s going to call attention to itself,” said the priest-artist. He has a free hand, allowing for the five Cs that revolve around everyone connected with the initial five-year-long project: concepts, cardinal, cost, critics and congregation.

Concepts and the cardinal are intertwined. This is Mahony’s cathedral. He’s totally hands-on. If it doesn’t “work” it’s his fault. Costs and critics are another twosome. The local Catholic Worker community has constantly and correctly questioned these enormous outlays in a city known for the sheer mass of its poor and immigrant populations.

In the final analysis, what a cathedral becomes rests in the hands of its varying congregations, the folks who will make the place holy. It may be a decade before anyone can truly gauge how Angelenos have responded to it as a church to make their own.

Vosko has to help make that happen.

Through an adobe portal

The five-and-a-half acre site is bordered to the north by the constant traffic hum (reverberation is a problem) of State Highway 101 -- the Hollywood Freeway, and to the west, south and east by city streets Grand, Temple and Hill respectively. The two-and-a-half acre plaza is laid out and partly planted. It can be reached either through the parking garage, or off Temple through an adobe portal strung with ancient bells from the old San Fernando Mission.

Immediately inside the plaza, there’s the Lita Albuquerque-designed welcoming pool and waterfall. From Mahony’s selection of seven scriptural sources, Vosko chose the Samaritan woman at the well. “I am the living water” will be inscribed around the fountain in the 42 languages spoken in the archdiocese. The Native Americans’ unique contribution is Kumeyaay artist Johnny Bear Contreras’ “The Spirit of the Earth,” a myth-laden sculpture.

Overall, the church is finished. Its promoters make much of its adobe coloring and shingled effect that provides light-and-shadowed variety to its otherwise plain sun-baked exterior elevations. The cathedral offices, the cardinal’s residence and rectory above the parking lot on the eastern edge of the cathedral plaza are darker hues, closer to graham cracker crust-colored. From here cathedral rector Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik will operate the parish’s social outreach through a street-level door on Temple. In this complex, too, there’s a café that overlooks the plaza.

In the cathedral’s façade there is still a yawning gap: the south portal where the colossal 30-foot tall, 50,000-pound hydraulically operated main bronze doors will be installed. Designed by Robert Graham (who did the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C.), they were delayed a month by a bronze-workers’ strike.

If the actuality works as well as the mock-up, the light and shadow through a hole in the structure above her head will give an impressive halo effect to the statue of Our Lady crowning the doors. Graham’s sculpture depicts a no-nonsense, bare forearmed Virgin with a welcoming, workaday next-door neighbor persona.

Lalo Garcia’s proposed rosebush-surrounded Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine on the grass facing the freeway traffic may be a head-turner during car-crawling commuter hours.

Moneo’s angular moderne structure defies convention in a couple of major ways. Cathedral main entrances generally are centered at the rear of the church for easy access and processional purposes. People enter facing the altar.

Our Lady of the Angels is entered through that main portal to the south side of the altar and down a 300-foot-long corridor lined on one side by shrines and on the other by a plain wall. (Vosko wants an elegant, if subtle, illustrated history of the church in California scrolled along that 300-foot corridor wall. In the north corridor, along with the Stations of the Cross, there’s a room Vosko has earmarked as an art gallery for small traveling exhibits.)

No stained glass windows

There are no stained glass windows in the 330-foot long church with its geometrically patterned wooden ceiling that soars from 80 feet at the rear above the baptistry to 104 feet at its highest point, over the “human scale” altar cross. The main aisle appears offset. It’s a trick of the eye.

The cathedral is glazed -- if that’s the correct word -- with thin alabaster sheets that cast an even, suffuse glow on the construction turmoil inside. Below the main church the crypt chapel has stained glass from St. Vibiana’s -- and her relics. Plus corridors lined with future burial vaults for the very wealthy -- or the occasional venerable.

Upstairs there’s lots of shrine and art space waiting to happen.

In approaching cathedral and church design, Vosko uses a mantra from St. John Chrysostom: “It’s not the building that makes the people holy, the people who come into the church make the building holy.” Vosko hopes to add inspiration to what he calls the “time-honored ingredients of architecture -- good scale, proper proportions, sense of verticality, appropriate use of materials and colors and light.”

The basketball-playing 6-foot-2-inch-tall priest begins by writing a cathedral’s story, a narrative explaining the why of it (essential in Los Angeles’ case because architect Moneo penned little). To sense out what would be welcoming in the cathedral’s doors and tapestries, Vosko early asked to meet with a multicultural commission.

The result: a kava bowl (Samoa), turtle (Chinese), legs (Sicilian), the I Ching symbol and dozens more culturally symbolic condors, fish, stags and lions are cast in the bronze doors. Another result: 10-foot-tall saints from all over the world depicted in the 36 seven-foot-long 20-foot high “communion of saints” tapestries. Included among 133 saints in the John Nava-designed tapestries being woven in Bruges, Belgium, are a half-dozen anonymous faces for the unrecognized everyday saints.

The Los Angeles cathedral’s design “is rather pure,” said Vosko, during a guided tour. “I think people are going to cry out for something light and colorful, and toward which they can establish their devotions.” Initially, until some side shrines are developed, one focus may be the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, containing the tabernacle, with its artifacts from St. Vibiana’s.

Stars in the pavement

Outside, he’s pleased with the constellation of the stars -- as they’ll be seen the night before the dedication -- embedded in the pavement near the Samaritan woman’s well, and inside with the baptismal pool design.

Four pipes currently stick up like water moccasins in the as-yet untiled total immersion font. Future candidates will enter through one gate, descend into the water, be baptized, and leave through another gate (then off to a small, secluded elevator down to the restrooms to change into dry clothing).

At the altar, 300 feet east, the ramp-accessible ambo, with a mechanical lectern, will allow people of any height -- or in a wheelchair -- to easily do the readings. A building of these dimensions is a challenge for the acoustical engineers. The swarm of busy, low-hanging lights contains the speakers. But a new cathedral is like a newly designed aircraft -- no one really knows how it will work until take-off. The acousticians have already installed a baffle at the church’s rear to help with a sound “hot spot.”

To counteract Southern California’s summertime baking sun, the plan calls for floor-level radiant cooling. “People are going to have to wear socks to church,” said Vosko with a laugh.

Everything about the cathedral is muted. Nava’s woven hangings are in the softest of earth tones. Despite its size, the cathedral is in several ways understated. Though it dominates its site, the complex also keeps to itself. People have to enter into the plaza -- it doesn’t obtrude upon the city as an open public space. Not even the northwestern corner’s 180-foot campanile with cross dominates the city landscape.

European Moneo decided to stretch Americans’ legs -- Angelenos are not pedestrians, they drive everywhere. From the underground parking to the front pews or transept seats is a hike of more than three football-field lengths. It’s a football field from the front door down the corridor to the church rear, turn the corner and there’s another football field hike to the front pews. Once inside the church, there’s a possible shortcut between a couple of shrine spaces.

Like incense drifting away

The point of the long walk, however, indeed the whole point of the cathedral, is the effect on turning that corner.

Once around that corner the huge church turns into a house of prayer, a large expanse of quiet calm. The very unbusyness of it is immediate refuge from the blaring cacophony of city and tangled highways, from the pressures of time, worries, work, woes. The cathedral’s slightly softened stark simplicity soothes, from the alabaster-filtered light -- which gives off the illusion of incense drifting away -- to the woods of the ceiling and plainness of the walls, these turn what could have been a 2,400-seat religious amphitheater into a chapel of ease.

Quite a feat.

In time, beyond the main worship area, several architectural oddities and missteps will become minor. They’ll be smoothed, enhanced -- the Vosko touch -- in the years ahead. He has his “placemats” for future art and projects already mapped out.

Meanwhile, whether people agree or not that a cathedral is money well spent, the money has been committed, the building is up.

Los Angeles has a cathedral worthy of the name. And Our Lady of the Angels has a shrine worthy of her calling.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002