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Where I Live by Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah

In the shadow of angels

To live in St. Vibiana's is to witness the evolution of hallowed urban space.

September 18, 2003|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah

A man knocks on the door of the old cathedral and asks where the church went. He is looking for a copy of his daughter's baptismal certificate. I draw a map in the air of how to get to the new cathedral, and he says "gracias" and walks away in that direction.

Inside the nearly 130-year-old, deconsecrated St. Vibiana's Cathedral, the baptismal certificates and everything else Catholic have long been carted away. When I came to live here last year, there were still the dusty outlines of the Stations of the Cross running the length of the cathedral, but a film crew has since painted the walls and even those shadows are gone. The stained-glass windows have been removed, and clear daylight pours across the empty sanctuary onto the mosaic floor. Waves of earthen colors lap toward what remains of the marble altar.

The church may be gone, but in the bare cathedral, it feels like faith lingers, a city of people who brought their children, their marriage, their ancestors for baptism, blessing, burial since the 1880s.

I've seen stray cats dart through a broken vent under the cathedral, but birds own this place. Two sparrows cavort the length of the nave, then either crash, or have a fight, or mate, high at the golden capital of a column. The sparrows wake the pigeons, and one after another, they fly in an unhurried way under the vaulted ceiling and out the half-moon windows to the garden.

The cathedral, rectory and gardens span the block just south of City Hall. Five of us -- Lupe, Perri, Hal, Patrick and I -- live in the rectory, in rooms that once belonged to priests and the cardinal. There are five floors with dozens of unused rooms; the rectory is a labyrinth of doors and hallways. You turn a corner and find yourself in a room with nothing but racks of old keys, a deserted dining room with impeccably hand-stitched curtains now gray with age, a wine cellar with rolled-up maps in the slanted racks. Let the wrong door shut behind you and you are locked in an enclosed courtyard with a gurgling fountain, overgrown fan palms, wild orchids and the sparrows.

The cathedral is owned by developers -- Tom Gilmore, Jerri Perroni and Robert A. Jones -- who fashioned a plan to save it from demolition, renovate it and open its doors to the community as a performing arts center. Renovation begins soon but until then, my housemates and I live in this cloister, keeping the trees watered, the gas lines connected, the gates locked. A year ago, when I asked if I could move in, one of the developers asked me, "Are you sure?" He said there were no guarantees, that my unwritten lease could last 30 days or a year, when renovations began I'd have to move out, that even before that there'd be demolition dust and construction noise, and on top of it all, there were no doors in the two rooms that I'd asked to live in. But there were doors, beautiful oak doors that slid in and out of pockets in the wall. I whittled my life down to two rooms of furniture, I stacked my dishes in the kitchen pantry next to Hal's, I carried a set of cathedral keys to the key man on Broadway and made some copies.

My housemates had all worked for the developers, as film or leasing reps and maintenance staff. We each asked to live here for our own reasons, because it's cheap, because we can walk to work, because it's an old cathedral with a garden of eucalyptus and bodhi trees smack in the middle of downtown. When we moved in, we were barely acquaintances, but in the rectory, we leave our doors open to one another. Our dogs pad from room to room, spending the day with whoever is home. We leave notes on the kitchen counter to say the dogs have been fed.

Outside, along the old cathedral walls and construction fencing, live our only neighbors. Homeless people park shopping carts and lay cardboard on the sidewalk and we negotiate our shared space in conversation, sandwiches, cigarettes, extra blankets and pleas to one another. One man opens a music book and drums incessantly on the sidewalk. There is not enough pedestrian traffic for an overturned hat; he is just practicing. On a scorching summer weekend, Perri points to our open windows and asks the drummer to give us a break. He looks at the building behind him, and says, "Somebody lives here?"

From the street view, cracks jag their way through plaster and the paint peels in stripes. The rectory windows are so caked with city grime it would be hard to see interior light even if we hadn't unscrewed most of the bulbs to lower the utility bills we divide five ways. Lupe sweeps the sidewalks of 2nd, Los Angeles and Main, but as soon as his back's turned, bits of trash blow up against the side of the cathedral, fraying the edges like an old cuff.

I tape a note to the mailbox: This is not an abandoned building.

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