A modern St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, to be built where its historic namesake was gutted by fire two years ago, will once again "provide a toehold for the Divine in our center city," said Cardinal Timothy Manning at the ground breaking for the new structure Friday.
Firefighters in three engines pulled up to the empty lot at Los Angeles and 12th streets Friday as a dozen brown-robed Franciscan friars and about 50 church officials and parishioners watched Manning and Mayor Tom Bradley each turn a shovel of dirt, officially beginning construction of the $1.8-million church.
"We're paying our respects," Capt. Mike Bowers said. Some of the firefighters at the ground breaking had helped battle the spectacular blaze on a Sunday morning in September, 1983. The fire was blamed on outdated electrical wiring in the basement.
The old St. Joseph's, built to serve German-speaking immigrants, was dedicated in 1903 and featured stained-glass windows from Munich and an ornate, wood-carved Gothic interior.
"This was not just a place of worship. It was one of the architectural gems of the city," Bradley said at the short ceremony.
St. Joseph's congregation is now predominantly Latino, and popular mariachi Masses filled the 1,000-seat church to overflowing every Sunday before it was destroyed, Pastor Felipe Baldonado said.
The Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservationist groups tried to save what was left of the burned-out church, but the steeple and walls were finally torn down for safety reasons.
The mariachi Masses will continue in the smaller, new church, which will house the original church bells and will be built partly from the old church's bricks. Gothic windows, arches and a mosaic of the old church are other touches that will evoke memories of the Victorian-era St. Joseph's, architect William Brown said.
A modest design, seating 750, was chosen for the new church for economic reasons, church officials said.
"What has seemed to be dead has now risen from the ashes," said Manning, adding that St. Joseph's resurrection is especially important because most of the other downtown churches with large congregations have moved out of the area.
"I came to this church every Sunday for 32 years," said Magdalena Lopez Neseguer, 66. "I cried when it burned down, and I look forward to hearing its bells again."
Lopez Neseguer and hundreds of other worshipers have been attending Sunday Mass in the Transamerica Center, which houses the company that is paying for the new church in settlement of an insurance claim. The Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Co. made its auditorium available to the St. Joseph's congregation after the fire.
St. Joseph's should be ready for Sunday Mass again in about a year, Brown said.