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L.A.'s New Cathedral: A Tour With Cardinal Mahony

By John Bookser Feister

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony talks about his new cathedral, its Franciscan roots and the state of the Church today.


Why Now?
‘It’s Worth It’
Journey of Faith
Mission Motif Says ‘California’
Popular Touches
Building the People of God
Evolving Structures

L.A.'s New Cathedral: A tour With Cardinal Mahony

Photo by
John Bookser Feister

There’s a new landmark perched on a hill in downtown L.A. overlooking the Hollywood Freeway. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated September 2 by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. His culturally diverse archdiocese, the nation’s largest, claims five million Catholics inhabiting 9,000 square miles.

The cathedral came with a whopping $195 million price tag, plus controversy over both cost and its modern appearance. When you ask the cardinal why his new cathedral looks the way it does, he’ll tell you it’s because of the people who will use it. And use it they will. On September 11, only a week after the dedication, Angelenos of every faith processed from City Hall to the new, highly prominent house of God to remember the victims of last year’s terrorist attacks. The cathedral is being hailed as a resource for the region.

A few weeks before the cathedral’s dedication, Cardinal Mahony devoted the better part of a morning one-on-one with St. Anthony Messenger, talking about the cathedral and its Franciscan roots, discussing the Church today and showing off this new center of worship and culture with obvious delight.

Why Now?

The first question many ask when they hear of this massive construction is, Why? Doesn’t the Church have enough buildings, many in need of repair? How can the Los Angeles Archdiocese justify such an expense with so many poor in their midst? Cardinal Mahony has been addressing these questions since he first announced the project in 1996.

He recounts a 90-year history of delay in planning and building. First proposed in 1904, because of the inadequacy of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, it simply never happened, even amid announcements and plans for a new cathedral by bishop after bishop. The Depression, the World Wars, the postwar population boom and its need for an unprecedented parish and school building program—all these put this building on hold.

“St. Vibiana’s was in a very difficult location,” Cardinal Mahony explains of the old downtown cathedral, located in a depressed neighborhood. “It was right on the sidewalk; there was practically no parking. Nobody knew about it, nobody went there—it was the last place someone would even think of going to.” After the 1994 Northridge earthquake’s extensive damage, the city condemned the building, but would not allow it to be razed.

By God’s providence, says Mahony, there was a 5.5-acre site at the edge of downtown, “sitting here, owned by the county, a parking lot. We purchased it, and the rest is history.” It happens to be about the highest spot in the downtown area, beside the Hollywood Freeway, across Temple Street from the massive county government complex, kitty-corner to the Los Angeles Center for Performing Arts and its new Walt Disney Concert Hall—in short, an ideal location both to serve the community and to make a strong public statement about the presence of the Church.

Critics, most visibly Catholic Worker activists, questioned whether this expensive project was the kind of statement that the Church ought to be making. The activists picketed the construction site and effectively blocked a groundbreaking ceremony with acts of civil disobedience. Construction was not to be stopped, however.

‘It’s Worth It’

Cardinal Mahony becomes animated refuting his financial critics, even quoting Catholic Worker cofounder Dorothy Day in his defense. “The same kind of argument was raised centuries ago when they were building St. Peter’s. It amazes me that they can build an arena like the new Staples Center for $400 million and no one raises an eyebrow. Or they build the Disney Concert Hall for $300 million and nobody says a word about that! They pay Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal $120 million to throw a basketball.” His sports players list goes on. “Yet, why do people get upset when you build a house of God that’s going to be here for 800 years?”

He offers the cathedral as a sacred gathering place for the L.A. community in times of joy and tragedy. “The city had no place to gather for memorials. Now we have a place.”

The project was a boon to local workers, he hastens to add. The $195 million is “out in the families of the people who did all the work! House payments, school expenses, braces for the kids’ teeth—that’s where the money is!”

He recalls the story of Dorothy Day insisting to a reporter covering a cathedral dedication that poor people deserve beauty, too. “Cathedrals are free,” adds Mahony. “You can come and go, and everybody mingles here—the poorest of the poor, the richest of the rich. It is the city’s common ground to bring everybody together.”

Journey of Faith

On the outside, Los Angeles’s new cathedral looks dramatically different from most American cathedrals, built in earlier times. The inside has the familiar feel, on a grand scale, of a contemporary parish. Mahony hired a world- renowned contemporary architect, the Spaniard José Rafael Moneo, and later commissioned some of the Western region’s top artists to create tapestries, sculpture, furniture and striking architectural elements for the worship space. Liturgical design expert Father Richard Vosko, of Albany, New York, was the cardinal’s principal consultant on designing the worship space.

Cardinal Mahony had a hand in every step of the cathedral’s construction. Riding the newly installed elevators for the first time while showing St. Anthony Messenger the building under final construction, he notes the light bulbs are wrong, and counts how many energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs will be required to replace them. He personally designed the massive altar, even visiting workers in Italy at the marble quarry that yielded the rock. Day-to-day construction oversight was entrusted to Franciscan Brother Hilarion O’Connor, O.S.F., director of construction projects for the archdiocese.

The cathedral complex is a play in five acts. There is the cathedral itself including an extensive subterranean mausoleum. Outside is a 2.5-acre plaza suitable for worship, civic gatherings or informal day-to-day use. Across the plaza from the cathedral is a conference center and adjoining rectory for the cardinal and cathedral parish priests; below all that is a 600-space parking garage.

The art and architecture in this landmark facility are gaining attention and respect in many circles. In Catholic circles, where liturgical space is a constant source of debate and interest, what is fundamentally contemporary about the cathedral building is its starting point. “Fifty years ago we would have been looking at one of the classical designs,” says Mahony. The architect Moneo, instead, working closely with the cardinal and his design committee, started with theological reflection and connection to the natural, God-given environment of California.

On the theological side, the biblical concept of journey was emphasized. This, of course, is one of the great themes of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching about the Church—that, rather than being a static community with ready answers for everything, we are a pilgrim people on a journey of faith. “Therefore, entering the cathedral,” says Mahony, “should be an experience of this spiritual journey.”

This invitation is expressed in the many angles, nooks and crannies of the space, and the long walkways (ambulatories) that eventually lead up and into the main worship space, with side chapels, works of art, a reconciliation room and a quiet Blessed Sacrament chapel along the way.

Then there is the geographical setting. “Moneo knew that southern California is noted for its sunshine, so he decided to maximize the use of natural light,” the cardinal explains. “That God is light is one of the overpowering themes of the Old Testament, and Christ calls himself the Light of the World.” The cathedral has a pleasant, ambient light throughout the day, achieved by massive sheets of alabaster filtering daylight from enormous panels of clear glass. This is a radical departure from dark, Gothic design.

“Second Vatican Council also helped us in this sense: A cathedral isn’t just a place where you go to Mass and leave,” says Mahony. “It’s a place to gather. So we included the plaza, a relaxing cloister garden, the conference center—the cathedral is a meeting place for the city, the community and the Church.”

Mission Motif Says ‘California’

Architect Moneo identified a very healthy tension, says Mahony. “He said that, in the design, we need to bring with us our 2,000-year tradition. But at the same time, the Church needs to say something new to the new millennium.” The cathedral planners agreed that they wanted both something unique to the area and something that, in Mahony’s words, “moves cathedral building forward a bit.”

They settled on a visual theme emphasizing the historic California missions. “Even the color of the concrete is what original adobe looked like,” explains the cardinal. The plaza reflects a mission concept, as does the cloister garden, a quiet outdoor spot with a fountain, well-tended foliage and benches.

“The effort from the earliest days was to combine contemporary with traditional. When you go inside, the cruciform shape of the interior is quite traditional.” There are familiar wooden pews, a magnificent and prominent pipe organ. “But all of these things are in a more contemporary setting. There are no stained-glass windows in the cathedral proper. All of the light comes through these huge curtain walls of alabaster. It’s stunning, an experience of light.”

Like all cathedrals, says the cardinal, this is a teaching cathedral, in its own way. “For example, on the great bronze doors there are two kinds of stories. There are images of the Blessed Mother throughout this hemisphere, each of which has a fascinating story. Then there are 40 icons of the words deity and God in all the major faith traditions of the world.”

Later, walking through the multi-ton bronze doors, he points at the 40 interfaith icons: “When you come to the house of God, it says God to everybody.” Speaking to a very diverse population—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—was one of the planners’ challenges, he explains. Similarly, a gateway fountain in the plaza is inscribed with the words, “I shall give you living water” in the 37 languages spoken in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

“We have so many groups—you’d never have enough room for all of the statues and images!” exclaims Mahony, walking through the cathedral. Instead the nave presents massive tapestries with 135 saints, blesseds on the road to recognition and even a handful of common people representing the vast majority in the Kingdom who never will be canonized. “This is an incredibly deep teaching opportunity because, in celebrating the Eucharist, we are surrounded by the communion of saints. They accompany us on our journey, through the Eucharist, to the Kingdom,” he says.

One notices Mother Teresa of Calcutta pictured standing next to Pope John XXIII among the saints and blesseds. “She’s the only one we took a chance on,” he says with a smile. “We figured, if she doesn’t make it, forget it!”

His personal favorite image on the tapestries is a multiracial group of four unnamed teens in sneakers, among some of the giants of Christian history.

Popular Touches

Artifacts of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral were used to enhance the new design. The crypt of fourth-century martyr St. Vibiana herself, discovered in the Roman catacombs in the 1800s, is a centerpiece of the mausoleum.

A popular and unique touch is the 12 dedication candleholders placed throughout the cathedral’s walls (away from the tapestries). Each is a hand-sculpted bronze angel, a few feet tall, with wings similar to the tall bronze flame emerging from the candleholder in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. These candles were central in last month’s historic dedication Mass at the cathedral. Angels, who figure prominently in heavenly worship in Scripture, also surround the base of the altar and the baptistery, reminding worshipers of the ties between Baptism and Eucharist.

To protect all of this, the entire structure sits atop a series of underground pillars on massive stainless steel pads that will allow the cathedral literally to slide around, up to 29 inches in any direction, in the event of an earthquake.

Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral will be a work in progress for years, as new art is commissioned and installed. A labyrinth, as in the Chartres Cathedral, is planned for the plaza, says Mahony. And two stones from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula in Assisi (the cathedral and city’s namesake) will find a place of honor, perhaps in the south ambulatory.

“We contacted the Franciscans and asked for these when construction began. We considered putting them into the foundation, but then no one would be able to see them,” he explains. So they await a more prominent spot. The Franciscans also provided a relic of St. Francis, which was placed among other relics in the cathedral altar during the dedication.

Building the People of God

Any cathedral becomes sacred as the Church uses it. To the degree that the Church itself is whole and healthy, the cathedral’s exquisite art and architecture will take on their deepest meaning. As the Archdiocese of Los Angeles begins this new chapter in its worship history, it is busy rebuilding itself from within. During our interview Cardinal Mahony addressed some of the challenges and opportunities the nation’s largest archdiocese faces today.

The archdiocese began a two-year synod last September, a formal process of naming and addressing the needs of the local Church. “I’m very pleased that it’s happening now, because so much has happened since last year,” says the cardinal. “We shifted gears since the scandal in the Church, in terms of governance issues. We really need to deepen and expand all of our governance structures.” This year’s economic downturn has also caused a refocusing, as investment funds, and thus archdiocesan financial resources, have dried up. “The terrible economy has had an enormous impact on what we’re able to do centrally in an archdiocese like ours. This is with or without any sex-abuse lawsuits.

“But this is a grace,” the cardinal adds. “The synod is helping us get back to our baptismal roots.” Last year he issued a pastoral letter, As I Have Done for You, that is “really the basis for our renewing our local Church,” he says. “Little did we know of these other events that would come and make the renewal more real.” Because of economic conditions, parishes are being forced to look for answers closer to home, he says: “How do we make the Church work here ourselves? How can clusters of parishes do things together, rather than having all of these ‘downtown services’?”

Some have suggested that the U.S. bishops’ new National Review Board, led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as a response to the sex-abuse crisis, will be a direct step towards more lay participation in Church governance. Cardinal Mahony sees it more as a reminder of what we already were supposed to be doing. “The active participation and voice of laypeople, at all levels of the Church, is really, really critical.”

Evolving Structures

He expresses astonishment that, 40 years after Vatican II, so many parishes, even in his own archdiocese, don’t have functioning parish councils or functioning finance councils. The synod will strengthen local regulations there. The synod will also help devise governance structures for the five pastoral regions (each served by an auxiliary bishop), so that a more workable archdiocesan council can be developed.

Within the renewed archdiocese, the cathedral will play a central role. “The cathedral building project has helped the people in 293 parishes of the archdiocese see the connection between the Mother Church and their parish churches,” explains the cardinal. “We’re not a collection of autonomous congregations. What links the parishes is the Cathedral Church.”

It’s where, before each Easter, the holy oils are blessed and sent out to all the parishes; where deacons, priests and bishops are ordained, catechists and ministers of the Eucharist are commissioned, all sent out to the parishes to minister. “The Cathedral,” says Mahony, “serves as a source and font of the vitality of the local Church. It’s what gives us our sense of unity.”

At San Damiano, outside Assisi, St. Francis heard a call to rebuild the Church and set about repairing decaying church buildings. Over time he came to understand his call as one to be Church in a new way. Cardinal Mahony, in his cathedral inspired by the Franciscan missions, prays that the diverse peoples of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, still journeying in faith, will do likewise.                                  


John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication and edtor of He holds master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.


L. A. Cathedral Web Exclusive! Audio presentation of Cardinal Mahony's cathedral interview and tour. Also, Web supplements related to the St. Anthony Messenger article, "L.A.'s New Cathedral: A Tour With Cardinal Mahony."

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