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Cathedral Extends a Wide Welcome

Our Lady of the Angels wants to be a sacred and secular gathering spot for L.A. residents.

September 14, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

If the writing on the wall wasn't clear enough, the scene in the room certainly was.

A Protestant was being eulogized by a Catholic in a nondenominational service inside Los Angeles' most extravagant house of worship.

Those attending the funeral of Los Angeles firefighter Jaime Foster passed a marble cornerstone proclaiming that the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is "a house of prayer for all peoples" as they entered a bronze doorway decorated with symbols of Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, African and other cultures.

Two years after its opening, the $200-million downtown cathedral is staking its claim as a central gathering place as well as a spiritual center for the city.

Its daily religious services remain its focal point. But a growing schedule of memorial services as well as other events are drawing Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The combining of the sacred with the secular has been a goal for the cathedral since Cardinal Roger M. Mahony decided to relocate the mother church of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese from a decaying neighborhood next to skid row to a highly visible hilltop above the Hollywood Freeway.

Mahony told 3,200 firefighters and friends paying their respects to rookie firefighter Foster that the cathedral was a gathering place for people in both times of joy and sorrow.

Foster died when she was run over by a slow-moving firetruck during a fire call in Encino. Los Angeles Fire Department officials asked that the cathedral be used for her Aug. 20 funeral after remembering how awkward they had felt when the last memorial service for firefighters killed was held.

The service for three department members killed in a 1998 helicopter crash had to be conducted at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in order to accommodate 3,300 mourners.

"All that the cardinal asked was that the service be spiritual in nature," said Fire Department Senior Chaplain Greg Gibson of Mahony's response. "He wanted to make a facility available to all of the city. It was fantastic the way they changed things around that day to accommodate us."

The cathedral was filled with police officers Feb. 27 for the funeral of slain Los Angeles Police Officer Ricardo Lizarraga. Mahony spoke, along with Police Chief William J. Bratton, Mayor James K. Hahn, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

Mahony made note of the two funerals two weeks ago when he placed a time capsule containing mementos of the cathedral's first 24 months in its basement mausoleum. He said some 2 million people have visited Our Lady of the Angels since its opening.

"Ricardo was a Catholic. Jaime was not. But the whole community came here" to honor their lives, Mahony said. "That's what the cathedral is about -- allowing those miracles to take place."

The West Temple Street cathedral even managed to play a role in the funeral of Ronald Reagan as the former president's services were being held 2,300 miles away at the National Cathedral in Washington.

Bells above Our Lady of the Angels tolled 40 times on June 11 to mark the end of the Capitol rites. A day of mourning was observed there for those in Los Angeles wishing to pay their respects to the 40th president.

Services for actor Gregory Peck drew celebrities ranging from singers Michael Jackson and Harry Belafonte to film stars Harrison Ford and Lauren Bacall to the cathedral after Peck's death at age 87 in 2003.

While tourists and other cathedral visitors were allowed in the cathedral during the rites, paparazzi were kept out of the 4,000-seat building and its enclosed plaza.

The outdoor plaza accommodates 2,500 and can be used for overflow crowds who can watch inside proceedings on large-screen TVs.

So far, the cathedral has been used for 42 funerals. Such services are subject to approval of the cathedral parish's staff.

Occasionally Mahony has specifically offered use of Our Lady of the Angels for high-profile funerals. When Times associate editor and columnist Frank del Olmo died earlier this year, the cardinal suggested holding the rites there. Del Olmo's family opted instead for All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

Church officials said Del Olmo's Feb. 24 funeral was sought because Mahony personally admired the journalist and felt the cathedral was close enough to The Times building for mourners to walk to his service.

"I think there are some times the cardinal has called" to suggest that a well-known person's funeral be held at the cathedral, said church spokesman Tod Tamberg. "But people are calling us now."

A memorial service for Los Angeles civic leader Ira Yellin, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, was held at the cathedral after his death in 2002. Later, Yellin received a posthumous award from the American Institute of Architects at an architectural awards gala that was also staged there.

A rabbi, a Sikh, a Hindu swami and a member of the Bahai faith joined Mahony for memorial services marking the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2003.

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