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A Lady Beloved by Many

L.A.'s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a huge sacred space, but, says an admirer, `As big as it is, it gets smaller when you know it.'

April 16, 2006|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

At precisely 7 a.m. the baritone bells dong-dong-donged through downtown Los Angeles, just as a fountain jumped to life and a guard unlocked the Temple Street gate of the nation's largest Roman Catholic cathedral. Cecelia Karikitan stood there waiting.

"I come from Pasadena every Sunday," said the 62-year-old retired cosmetologist, her smile highlighted by red lipstick. "I am devoted to the Virgin Mary, and this is my solemn place."

Formally, it's the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a $200-million, 12-story, freeway-adjacent, concrete-wall and alabaster-window monument to modern worship.

It was built during the clergy sexual abuse scandal and derided by critics as the "Taj Mahony" for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who commissioned it and opened its doors to worldwide architectural analysis on a scorching hot day, Sept. 2, 2002.

And not yet four years later, it is Karikitan's solemn place. It's also 27-year-old Christian Gonzalez's new parish, where he has chosen to be married next winter. It's where Robert Rogers, 75, feels as if he "is lifted off the ground" every time he walks through Cathedral Square, the plaza that reminds Carlos Lopez, 39, of "my hometown," Guadalajara, Mexico.

It's apparent that this place enriches the spiritual lives of thousands of Los Angeles Catholics. On this one day in the life of a cathedral built to last five centuries, about 12,000 people would attend four Palm Sunday Masses. Even more are expected to pack Easter services today.

Behind its imposing adobe-colored walls, the cathedral is all at once a tourist destination, a park packed with families, a busy cafeteria and a retail store that can't keep in stock enough bottles of Our Lady of the Angels Merlot.

But it is also a working church.

"I don't see this as a cathedral, I see it as my church," said Susan Sauvagea, 44, a Monrovia elementary school teacher who will soon receive the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation. "As big as it is, it gets smaller when you know it. It's actually a very homey, down-to-earth place."

It's where at 7:30 a.m. Luciana Pineda, 75, sat in solitude in the sanctuary. Hunched against a chair, her mitten-covered fingers rolled through rosary beads as her lips moved in silent Hail Marys. She lives in a downtown apartment and worked as a maid all her life.

"As long as I can still walk," she said, "I will come here and pray."

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Before each Mass, Lolly Aquino of Highland Park presides over a corps of 200 volunteer ushers and Eucharistic ministers who distribute Communion. All must sign in at a folding table set up in a vesting room, part of the cathedral's blessed back stage.

Three cathedral staffers -- Gabriela Esparza Reitzell; her assistant, Jim Devlin; and Sister Maria Corazon -- keep the Masses running: ensuring that the Book of Gospels is turned to the right reading for the priest, checking the wireless headset microphones for the priest and lectors, making sure the vestments are in perfect order. Most Sundays, about 8,000 people attend three Masses.

The trio scans the crowd and estimates how many Communion wafers and bottles of wine will be consecrated (eight bottles for a crowded Mass).

Aquino assigns every Eucharistic minister a number. Hand-printed stickers on the sanctuary's limestone floor mark their spots.

When distributing Holy Communion to about 3,000, traffic flow is important -- it must be fast and orderly, but reverent. Ushers direct people to the ministers holding the fullest cups of wine and plates of wafers. The Communion procession at the 12:30 p.m. Palm Sunday Mass, the day's most crowded, clocked in at eight minutes.

Charles Lane, the cathedral cantor, has a unique perspective on a day's services. His job is to look directly into the eyes of the people and invite them to join him in song.

"I really see the face of L.A. I see every kind of people. I see very wealthy people, very poor people, I see all races," Lane said. "This place grows on you, and it's growing in meaning to Los Angeles."

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Perhaps the cathedral's Spanish architect, Jose Rafael Moneo, didn't anticipate how hard it is to light charcoal briquettes to fuel a pot of incense. Just try it inside the cathedral and the fire alarm goes off.

On this day, an usher assigned to briquette duty stood outside with a box full of butane lighters, a metal spoon and the censer, the ornate metal container in which incense is burned. Like a backyard barbecue chef, he blew, and he poked the coals until they were burning hot.

Then there's the matter of the incense itself.

It's the cardinal's own special blend of up to seven fragrances that he mixes every month. Inside the cathedral, it's the smoke that matters, the symbol of prayers rising to heaven. To achieve a visibly thick and ascending plume, Mahony favors rock incense, which looks like aquarium pebbles, over powdery brands that burn too quickly.

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