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The Hand of God and Theirs

In building the cathedral, workers put their skills to the test. For some, it was faith that pulled them through.

September 02, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five hundred years from now when people stand and marvel at the soaring adobe-colored structure at Temple and Grand in downtown Los Angeles, they will learn the names of Jose Rafael Moneo, the cathedral's architect, and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the man who conjured it to life.

Perhaps they will even take away the name of sculptor Robert Graham, who built the 25-ton Great Bronze Doors, or John Nava, who designed the tapestries that line the nave.

But visitors of the future will never hear of Juan Hernandez, a carpenter from Mexico who worked on the Our Lady of Angels Cathedral for five years, or Eleazar "Chay" Contreras, the layout superintendent who plotted the angles of the cathedral in three-dimensional space, or Dana Baker, a marble mason who laid stones in the floor, and granite in the baptistery. Nor will they learn the names of Charles Coury, who hid scriptures in the rafters, or Dennis Paoletti, who calculated the way sound will reverberate through the basilica, or Francis Krahe, whose lighting turns the cathedral at night into a giant lantern.

No one has exact numbers, but C. Terry Dooley, senior vice president of Morley Construction, who worked at the cathedral for six years, estimates that 2,000 people worked on the $200-million cathedral complex downtown from start to finish.

These are some of the invisible ones, whose hands laid the stones, poured the concrete, placed the alabaster in the windows, laid the wires. But unlike the theaters, apartments, casinos and malls that are their livelihood, some craftsmen and construction workers also invested something of themselves in this cathedral.

Dooley said the workers' tangible investment in the building was part of Moneo's plan. When the contractor proposed casting the adobe-colored concrete off-site, and transporting it downtown--which would have been easier--Moneo called the idea "an abomination."

"I want to see the hands of the workers," Moneo told them.

Some of these artisans and tradesmen believe God chose them for this job. Others prayed for guidance on the site, as the enormity of the task withered their courage. Still others found themselves--unexpectedly--caught under the spell of the sacred space.

Those who worked on it like to say--although they are not strictly correct--that there are no right angles in this cathedral. There are certainly few.

All the points of the structure, every corner, every wall of every chapel, the baptismal, the floor, was ultimately measured from a single point at the corner or Temple and Grand using a piece of computerized surveying equipment called a digital theodolite. The tool used lasers projected into space to plot the corners of the building.

Contreras was the layout superintendent on the project. In order to construct the 800-plus angles, he plotted more than 11,000 points. "We have to shoot the three dimensional point coordinates into the middle of gravity so we can build to that point," said Contreras, a slight man with bright eyes, fine features and a boyish enthusiasm that makes even his most esoteric point sound fascinating.

Last Tuesday morning, he pointed with pride at some of the sharpest corners, the difficult angles, the canted slope of the chapels of the ambulatory and the radiating web of floor stones.

Everything that followed--the placement of wooden forms built by carpenters, the pouring of concrete by laborers--depended on Contreras having perfectly plotted the points. If a wall was off by even an inch, workers had to fight the tiny error from floor to roofline or the corner had to be remade. "The work was so intense," Contreras said. "There were instances on the job site when I looked up at the sky and I said, 'Help me, God.' I had this responsibility. I really didn't want to make an error. I believe God helped me and there it is."

The hours were crazy. The concrete had to be poured in the inky blackness of early morning--at 2:30 or 3 a.m.--to keep the water below 70 degrees and ensure hundreds of years of durability. Riding high on the building, as the sun rose over the city, were some of the best times for Contreras.

"Oh, it was great," Contreras said. "There were moments when you were up in the sky and you could see all the downtown high rises, and the mountains, and it just felt like you were going to heaven."

Through months of taking measurements and calculating points, Contreras eventually came to understand in his bones the symbolic language of the building, just as Moneo hopes visitors will. It happened one day inside the cathedral, as Contreras plotted the axes of the church, and the floor stones that radiated from the altar. "I realized it was a cross," Contreras said. "Then I would think, when I was working at the back of the church, I am working on His right foot.... Just by knowing I worked on the cathedral, to me it was like a gift of God. Like I was born to be building His house."

Dream Job

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