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Financing from the living and the dead


Downtown Los Angeles is home to the first pay-as-you-go Catholic cathedral. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a monument to Southern California marketing and business savvy.

This cathedral will survive financially on income from two types of parking spaces: in perpetuity crypts for the dead and auto parking spaces for the living.

That’s because cathedral financing isn’t what it was.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was built for $4 million (including the Lady Chapel) in the 1870s with “the nickels and dimes” of Irish working girls. For sure the 19th-century’s Gilded Age had plenty of millionaires -- but unlike today’s crop, they weren’t usually Catholic-friendly.

Several millionaires have kicked in nicely at Our Lady. The $3 million campanile and cross was donated by a local grocery family. In the plaza, etched-glass angel panels for big donors to commemorate themselves on have a secondary utility -- the panels will be used to screen the cathedral from Hollywood Freeway traffic noise.

St. Patrick’s $4 million represents about $88 million in today’s money compared to $200 million for Los Angeles, but in many ways New York’s Catholics made the larger sacrifice.

In the 1870s, about 6 percent of gross family income went on “leisure activities.” Today that figure is around 32 percent. Which is another way of saying that families in the age of $200 million cathedrals have discretionary money galore compared to their 19th-century ancestors (and most of the 21st-century world).

Los Angeles’ roughly $200 million includes $67 million for the cathedral proper. The rest is for land acquisition, site work, the two-and-a-half acre plaza, cardinal’s residence, rectory and offices. There’s a $30 million budget for liturgical art, which includes everything from the furniture and the archbishop’s throne (the cathedra), to the tapestries and palm trees and projected Noah’s Ark children’s garden.

Los Angeles’ media relations director Tod Tamberg said those costs are “holding steady” and “there’s still $25 million to be raised.” The cathedral is not part of the archdiocese’s $547.7 million annual budget.

Construction money is one thing, maintenance money is another. What might Los Angeles’ toxic air do to those acres of precious alabaster used instead of stained glass, and to the adobe hued concrete? Same as the rain and snow and frost does to St. Patrick’s -- require lots of upkeep.

At St. Patrick’s the operating budget is $3.5 million a year. Tamberg said he couldn’t even estimate a “ballpark figure” yet.

However, Los Angeles has a budgetary ace-in-the-hole, below ground, in a manner of speaking. It consists of more than a thousand holes in the wall and floor in the cathedral crypt, and its 600-space three-level underground parking garage.

And here’s where the hype comes in.

Below ground there’s a squeezed-in St. Vibiana’s Chapel -- the archdiocese’s 19th-century earthquake-cracked St. Vibiana’s Cathedral is now condos and a planned art museum. This chapel includes St. Vibiana’s remains and is suggested as an intimate worship space suitable for weddings.

There’s other bits of St. Vibiana stained glass below stairs, too. Crypt décor. The crypt corridors with their 1,300 mortuary-style lockboxes look like an endless Port Authority Bus Station luggage locker area decked out in so much marble the final effect is 1960s kitchen-counter-top Formica. There are an additional 3,000 niches for cremated remains.

This might be expensive real estate, but it isn’t attractive. However, the city of Forest Lawn cemetery knows a thing or two about hyping its dead. The American way of death needs a name or two. So, give big donors free access to some plum spots by the stained glass and lunettes, and the hope is the wannabe-buried-poshly crowd will follow.

Some people might want to share shelf space with Rupert Murdoch and Roy Disney, Bob Hope and Merv Griffin -- millionaires who have contributed mightily to the cathedral cause and earned themselves a place in the corridor boxes, or one of the grander individual crypts -- if they choose.

How much? Tamberg wasn’t hazarding a guess as we wandered through, but has subsequently suggested $50,000 per crypt would not be unreasonable. A sort of manufacturer’s suggested retail price to test the market. At that price each crypt would represent a $30,000 profit. There’s a plan to set up a Cathedral Foundation with the money.

But as any mausoleum owner will admit, crypts are not bought. They are sold. And the archdiocese has a mighty sales job on its hands to fill the spaces. There’ll be family twofers and specials before the archdiocese can count on the money as an endowment.

In the meantime, there’s always the living.

Downtown parking around the cathedral is $4 for the first 20 minutes, or $14 all day. The cathedral has 600 parking spaces. Allowing 100 for cathedral use on weekdays, at $14 all day those remaining 500 spaces are worth about $35,000 per Monday through Friday, around $2 million a year.

There’s a moral.

If you’ve decided a cathedral is the way to go, and if you know cathedrals aren’t the meccas they once were, build in the income at the get-go. And if you can sprinkle a little big-name Hollywood holy stardust on the crypts -- non-Catholics can apply under certain restrictions -- so much the better.

The relatives coming for the burial can pony up the $14.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002