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St. Vibiana's: Where John Paul Will Stay

September 13, 1987|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

It has been one insult atop another for stately old St. Vibiana's, the cathedral as obscure as its namesake, maligned since its conception.

While other major houses of worship--St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the National Cathedral in Washington--exude magnificence amid their upscale surroundings, St. Vibiana's is stuck in the squalor of downtown Los Angeles, pressed on one side by the Union Rescue Mission and on another by a parking lot.

Its location was sneered at before it was built, and its original graceful lines were shorn in an early renovation. One burglar bled to death in the courtyard, and others set fire to its interior and rifled its poor boxes.

Like 'Worn-Out Garments'

Twice in its 111 years, the faithful who built it sought to demolish it. In a searing pastoral letter delivered in 1945, then-Archbishop John J. Cantwell equated the cathedral with "worn-out garments" unseemly for the archdiocese's mother church.

Where once it drew parishioners from much of the city, its 1,200 seats are filled now only on special occasions. Its fate has been that of many of Los Angeles' inner-city landmarks, shunted aside in the march to suburbia.

"The city began at the center and expanded out and the cathedral was more or less left behind," said retired Cardinal Timothy Manning, who led the Los Angeles archdiocese from St. Vibiana's for 15 years.

But this week, St. Vibiana's exacts a certain revenge. Its garments only slightly mended, the cathedral will be the focus of events for the first visit of a reigning pontiff to Los Angeles.

The Tuesday parade welcoming Pope John Paul II will deposit him on the steps of St. Vibiana's, where he will conduct a prayer service before spending two nights in the cathedral's five-story, simply furnished rectory.

Msgr. Royale M. Vadakin, who oversees the cathedral and its small parish, said that no other church was considered as the Pope's temporary home. Its tattered surroundings notwithstanding, St. Vibiana's remains the spiritual home of the archdiocese.

"It provides a sense of history," Vadakin said. "It's a reminder, really, of the tremendous vision that people had, what it took for a small village to build it."

Los Angeles was, indeed, a mere village when church officials first gathered to build a cathedral in the 1860s. Fewer than 5,700 people lived here, concentrated around the historic plaza north of the Civic Center. Los Angeles was a dirt-road, horse-trodden little town with big aspirations.

Vast Church Planned

But some aspirations were too much. When the church hierarchy decided to place the cathedral near 6th and Main streets on a donated plot of land, locals hooted that it was "too far out of town," wrote the archdiocese's archivist, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, in his 1976 centennial history of St. Vibiana's.

Nevertheless, the cornerstone was laid in 1869 in ceremonies marked by "the largest assemblage drawn together here"--nearly 3,000 people, a newspaper wrote. Plans were for a vast church 262 feet in length, crossed by a 168-foot transept, Weber's history recounted.

The church never got past the cornerstone. Hard economic times interfered and when church officials next raised the issue, their proposal called for a northern site at 2nd and Main streets and a structure considerably less grand than the original.

Construction of the new church, designed by E. F. Kysor, began in 1872 and faltered a short time later, when the archdiocese again ran out of money. A new builder was brought in and, employing "every bricklayer that can be found in the city," according to an account at the time, completed the work in January, 1876.

There was never a doubt what title the cathedral would bear--Pope Pius IX asked that it be named in honor of St. Vibiana, a little-known maiden martyr whose relics were found in 1853 amid catacombs near Rome's Appian Way. In the generations since her death in the 3rd Century, no account of her life has surfaced, Weber said.

For a time, the history of St. Vibiana's Cathedral was written in pomp--celebration rang out when Popes ascended, somber ceremonies took place with the funerals of senators and governors, famed actresses and generals.

A Practical Side

The building was surrounded by the mansions of the wealthy--and there was a touch of the practical as well. Old photographs show a gun shop next door; at one point the cathedral's neighbors included a brewery and beer garden.

By the turn of the century, however, the diocese thought it had outgrown St. Vibiana's. In 1904, Bishop Thomas J. Conaty proposed an immense domed cathedral on 9th Street and received papal permission to tear down St. Vibiana's.

That effort failed because of a local economic depression, but less than 40 years later Conaty's successor, Archbishop Cantwell, unveiled architectural plans for a new, block-long, $1.5-million mother church, to be built on Wilshire Boulevard in honor of Our Lady of the Angels. Again, the move posed the death of St. Vibiana's.

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